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Photo by Wonderlane | flickr creative commons

Over 50 years ago James Baldwin penned an article for Esquire magazine that grappled with the face of poverty in Harlem. Baldwin famously wrote, Anyone who has ever struggled with poverty knows how extremely expensive it is to be poor.” Poor people do not shoulder the burden alone; we all share the cost, whether we acknowledge it or not.

Given this impact, what is the face of poverty in California? Overall, the US Census measured 46.5 million Americans living in poverty during 2012. An analysis of 2012 Census data shows that one out of six Californians, over 6 million people, live in poverty. Poverty also impacts our youth. This same data shows that one out of four children, numbering 2.1 million, also struggle with poverty. The 2012 poverty rate for California was 15.9 percent, up from 12.2 percent in 2006.

The Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC) recently studied these trends and the implications for our state. In PPIC’s Poverty in California, researchers came to some troubling conclusions. First, they highlight Supplemental Poverty Measure Census data that indicates the California poverty rate, between 2009 and 2011, is actually 23.5 percent. This higher number reflects the high cost of living and relief provided by public welfare programs to those living in poverty.

The impact of poverty also varies with one’s level of education and race, with Latinos and African Americans suffering a disproportionately higher rate of poverty than white Californians. Finally, the report concluded that the state’s 58 counties experience poverty differently. San Mateo County had a poverty rate of 7.2 percent, whereas Fresno and Yolo struggled with rates over 20 percent. 

Employment alone is not security against poverty. California families struggling with poverty are working families. PPIC’s Child Poverty in California found that 61 percent of youth in poverty come from families in which one or both parents are employed. Nevertheless they still face challenges to make ends meet. These obstacles are often compounded by systemic discrimination against those who have been in contact with the juvenile or criminal justice system. Incarceration can be a poverty trap”, which can create insurmountable barriers to employment, housing and welfare benefits. Moreover, a significant number of African American youth have grown up in single parent households, with at least one parent incarcerated during a period of their childhood.

Counties with high rates of incarceration can also experience significant negative community health outcomes, such as sexually transmitted diseases and teen pregnancy. Studies have also shown deleterious effect of imprisonment on already fragile familial bonds, which can increase recidivism and substance abuse.

Recently PPIC and Stanford University have developed a new metric for measuring poverty, the California Poverty Measure (CPM). The CPM builds from previous Census work and constructs a new measure for poverty that incorporates regional variations in cost of living and the substantial positive impact of government social welfare programs. Their measure shows the importance of social safety net programs in helping individuals and families move beyond poverty.

James Baldwin concluded his Esquire article with a call to action, It is a terrible, an inexorable, law that one cannot deny the humanity of another without diminish one’s own: in the face of one’s victim, one sees oneself.” Poverty is a problem we must all recognize as our own. To do otherwise, is to deny the humanity of the less fortunate and allow the vicious cycle of poverty to continue. California must adopt policies that eliminate discriminatory barriers to employment. Moreover, government must continue to support safety net programs and non-profit community-based services, which respect the humanity of those struggling with poverty and give them the skills and opportunities to succeed.