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United Way Real Cost Measure Finds 1 in 3 California Households Struggle to Afford Basic Needs
[June 07, 2018]

United Way Real Cost Measure Finds 1 in 3 California Households Struggle to Afford Basic Needs

United Ways of California has released a new, statewide poverty report called Struggling to Stay Afloat: The Real Cost Measure in California 2018. Unlike the official federal poverty level, which does not accurately account for local costs of living, the Real Cost Measure looks at current costs of housing, food, health care, child care, transportation and other basic needs to determine what it truly costs to live in California. The study results are presented in a data-rich website that enables users to examine each of California's 58 counties at the neighborhood level, with county profiles and interactive maps. The URL is

"The Real Cost Measure puts a stake in the ground on the cost of a decent standard of living for different family sizes in every county in California, and then analyzes how many families in each conty and neighborhood cluster struggle to meet those costs," said Peter Manzo, president and CEO of United Ways of California. "We found that one in three households in California struggle to stay afloat, which is roughly three times as many as federal poverty statistics would indicate."

More statewide data highlights include:

  • Not earning enough: Nine in 10 households living below the Real Cost Measure include at least one working adult
  • Housing burden: Nearly four in 10 households in California (38 percent) spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing, and families below the federal poverty level spend as much as 79 percent of their income on their homes
  • Single mothers struggle: More than seven in 10 single mothers in California (72 percent) fall below the Real Cost Measure
  • Citizenship and language barriers: 45 percent of households led by a person born outside the U.S. are below the Real Cost Measure, and that number rises to 63 percent when the householder is not a citizen. Latino noncitizens especially struggle, with 80 percent living below the Real Cost Measure.

Regional highlights include:

  • LA County clusters: Of the 38 neighborhood clusters throughout the state that have 50 percent or more households living below the Real Cost Measure, 19 are in Los Angeles County
  • Diplomas matter: 69 percent of householders in the San Francisco Bay Area without a high school diploma fall below the Real Cost Measure, compared to 47 percent with a high school diploma, 31 percent with some college education, and 12 percent with a bachelor's degree
  • Central Valley families: Nearly seven in 10 households with children under the age of 6 in the Central Valley (67 percent) fall below the Real Cost Measure

To help people visualize the hardships households throughout California face, the Real Cost Measure online resources include interactive maps that reveal the number and percentage of households living below the Real Cost Measure, median household earnings and areas in which housing burden greater than 30 percent of a household's gross income.

Also included are county profiles with detailed budgets that reflect minimum annual household needs at the county level. These household budgets, calculated for 2016, include the cost of housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, 10 percent miscellaneous expenses, tax credits and taxes.

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