By Matt Levin
California leads the nation once again in a statistic no state wants to boast about.
When the cost of living is factored in, the Golden State has the highest poverty rate in the country. More than 20 percent of its residents struggle to make ends meet, according to recently released Census figures.That’s nearly 8 million people.
Unfortunately for Californians, this year’s poverty numbers are not an aberration. The Census began releasing state-by-state results for its “supplemental poverty measure” in 2011, in an attempt to improve upon the outdated and heavily criticized official poverty statistics.
In the less sophisticated “official” measure, a family of four in San Francisco or Los Angeles or San Diego faces exactly the same poverty threshold—$24,339 annually—as a family in rural Mississippi. That’s despite the fact that you can rent a three-bedroom, two-bathroom 1,200-square-foot house in Horn Lake, Mississippi, for the same price ($850 a month) as half a living room in the Bay Area.
California has been the poorest state in the nation under the vastly more sophisticated “supplemental” poverty measure since the alternative statistic was created (Mississippi is poorest under the old measure). It’s not even really that close: Florida has the second highest rate, at 18.7 percent.
Part of the reason California tops the list year after year is a byproduct of how the supplemental poverty measure is calculated. It’s a three-year moving average, so year-over-year changes can’t swing a state’s poverty rate one way or another all that much.
The Census uses data dating to 2011 to calculate the cost of living, so even the improved poverty rate could be underestimating how big a drain housing has been on California’s poor. The biggest jumps in housing costs—like those we’ve seen in Sacramento and other mid-size California cities in recent years—typically apply to a relatively small percentage of renters finding new apartments. But ask any California renter whether they’d rather be paying 2011 rents or 2017 rents, and they’ll ask you for the keys to the DeLorean as soon as possible.
What exactly is the role of housing in California’s poverty problem? There are a couple ways to answer that question, none perfectly satisfactory.
One method: What would poverty look like if everyone in California had cheaper rents?
Researchers at the the Public Policy Institute of California, which has developed its own…