By Jean Jordan.

My mother survived extreme poverty. Her coal miner father died when she was 2 years old and her mother passed away from cancer a couple of years later. She was one of eight children, so the oldest tried to take care of the younger children. But the war came, and the oldest boys were drafted. Her oldest sister took the three youngest and moved to California because they heard it was a place of opportunity. But things weren’t easy, and my mother spent most of her childhood ill due to a lack of food and proper nutrition.

Despite these hardships, she was the valedictorian of her high school and her community college. Today at 84 and financially secure, she still worries about having enough food and clothes and tends to stockpile things — just in case.

I refer to my mother’s story to emphasize the long-range effects poverty has on the both the physical and emotional health of those who have lived it. Today, poverty is a growing concern both nationally and in California. In the next few blog postings, we will take a look at who are the poor in California, what are the long-range effects of poverty, how it affects children, and the role counties can play in dealing with this important issue.

As of 2011, more than 6 million Californians live in poverty or on the edge of it.  According to the official poverty measure, the poverty rate was 16.2 percent in California — higher than the national average. The Obama Administration recently stated that the financial insecurity of the American family was the “defining challenge of our time.” The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality together with the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) developed the California Poverty Measure which can be used to provide county-level estimates of poverty. This more sophisticated scale estimates that more than one in five people in California (22 percent) are living in poverty.

So, who is are the poor in California?


According to the PPIC, Latinos (23.6 percent) and African Americans (24.2 percent) have much higher poverty rates than Asians (12.6 percent) and whites (9.8 percent) in California. The statewide poverty rate among Latinos living in families with a foreign-born head of household is 26.9 percent. Poverty rates increased for all racial and ethnic groups in California between 2010 and 2011. The Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality notes in a recent report that poverty among immigrants is particularly high in part due to the ineligibility for safety-net programs.


It is clear that education places a role in poverty. In 2011, the poverty rate among families headed by an adult lacking a high school diploma was 36.7 percent. In families headed by an adult with a college degree, the poverty rate was only 5.4 percent. For families where the head of household only had a high school diploma, the poverty rate was 19.9 percent.


The majority of poor people in California live in working families. In 37.3 percent of poor families, at least one family member is working full time, and in 25.6 percent someone is working part time.

Where do the poor live?

In 2011, the lowest poverty rate in California was in San Mateo County (7.2 percent) and the highest was in Merced County (30.0 percent). Bay Area counties, in addition to San Mateo, (Marin, Santa Clara, Sonoma, Contra Costa, and Alameda) had poverty rates below 13 percent.  Several Central Valley counties in addition to Merced (Tulare, Kern, Fresno, Stanislaus, Madera, Yolo, and Butte) had poverty rates in excess of 20 percent. Nearly 30 percent of all poor people in California lived in Los Angeles County (1.8 million people) in 2011.

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PPIC, Just the Facts, August 2013,

A Portrait of Poverty within California Counties and Demographic Groups, the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality

Originally posted at CSAC.