A street in City Heights
A street corner in City Heights, which in 2017 had among the highest proportion of residents living below the poverty line – as defined by the federal government – in San Diego. A new study argues that measure is not adequate. Megan Wood /inewsource

Nearly one in three California families struggle to cover their daily needs, according to a United Way study.

The study, released by a collective of 29 local United Way organizations in California, attempts to offer a better vision of which families are falling behind than the federal poverty level.

Researchers found that the share of families finding difficulty making ends meet is 250% higher in California as compared to results from the federal government’s measure.

That amounts to 3.5 million families who are unable to meet basic needs — a situation that affects Latino and Black households at much higher rates than among other communities.

Advocates argue that federal standards are based on an outdated formula for calculating poverty, one that fails to account for how much rent, transportation, healthcare, and other basic needs cost in California. 

“This study shows that many more California working families struggle to meet living costs than official estimates, and identifies significant gaps between what it costs for families and their children to live with dignity and what they actually earn,” said Peter Manzo, President & CEO of United Ways of California.

He called the study’s results “the yardstick by which we set our priorities,” one that should convince local community partners, civic leaders, the business sector, and elected officials “that so much more needs to be done to help families not just survive but actually thrive.” 

According to the study, the actual cost of living for a family of four – defined as two adults, one pre-schooler and one school-aged child – in San Diego County is $93,032.

To compare, in Los Angeles County the cost of living is $95,112, while in Sacramento the number is $77,072.

By comparison, the federal government says those same families would only need $26,500 to escape living in poverty.

The study’s other key findings include:

  • Of the estimated 3.5 million households in California that fall below what United Way calls the “Real Cost Measure,” 97% have at least one working adult.
  • Nearly 40% of California households devote roughly a third or more of their income to housing costs. Affordable housing advocates consider that too high.
  • Child-care costs are soaring. In Fresno County, the annual cost of child care for a family with two children can reach $14,429. In Orange County, it’s worse – $19,740.
  • More than half of the state’s households with children younger than 6 years old fall below the charity’s cost measure.
  • 70% of households led by single mothers in California fall below the cost measure.

In addition, being a person of color or foreign born places added strain on families, according to the study.

More than 1.7 million Latino California households are estimated to not earn enough to get by, compared to more than 1 million white households; 481,618 Asian American households; 259,516 Black households, and 13,592 Native American/Alaska Native households.

Meanwhile, 36% of the households in the state that are led by a person born outside the U.S. live below the cost measure.

That figure rises to 59% when the household is led by someone without U.S. citizenship. That’s compared to households led by a person born in the U.S. – only 26% fall below the United Way cost measure.

The study is based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s Community Survey data from 2014 through 2019.