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New Poverty Data: A Closer Look at California’s Food Insecurity and Poverty

September 21, 2016

The release of annual hunger and poverty data highlights both information we can celebrate and glaring reminders that there is much more to do.

Hunger in America & California

Nationally, the number of individuals experiencing food insecurity is declining, but still above prerecession levels. More than 42 million Americans live in households struggling against hunger (USDA). Rates of food hardship are higher among households with children (19.2%) than households without children (14.2%; FRAC).California ranked 32nd in the nation with a household food insecurity rate of 12.6 percent, or 1 in 8 households (FRAC). This is an improvement from California’s previous rate of 15 percent, or 1 in 7 households.

Both metropolitan and rural poverty remain high with only a minor recovery (CBPP), showing that the effects of poverty are felt across our nation no matter what the zip code. This is confirmed by data on food hardship in Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) that show two of California’s (and the nation’s) most important agricultural hubs– Bakersfield and Fresno – are fraught with the highest food hardship rates in the country. MSAs are not just cities but also include “the surrounding counties with strong economic and social ties to the central cities” (FRAC).














Top 20 MSAs with Worst Food Hardship (FRAC)


Measuring Poverty: the Supplemental vs. the Official Poverty Measure

The US Census Supplemental Poverty Measure is increasingly used in anti-hunger and poverty conversations as it is seen as a more accurate measure of poverty than the official measure because it considers both the local cost of living and social safety net program benefits in calculating poverty (Census SPM). The official poverty measure, by contrast, bases the poverty threshold on a simple calculation of a three times the cost of a basic food diet for a household in 1963, updated for inflation, and does not vary by locality.

The most recent Supplemental Poverty Measure data covering the 2013-15, found nearly 8 million Californians—or 20.6 percent of the state’s residents—are living in poverty. This is far higher than the 15.3 percent as measured by the Official Measure.

The graph below illustrates the effects of social safety net programs on poverty level for key age groups. Nationwide, SNAP (CalFresh in CA) alone lifted 4.6 million families out of poverty in 2015. This underscores the importance of linking every eligible household with CalFresh, WIC, Free and Reduced Lunch and other programs help to alleviate poverty.

US Census Bureau


When viewed over time, comparing the SPM to the Official Measure captures the anti-poverty effects social safety net programs have had on key populations such as children (4 percent reduction) and seniors (5 percent) during the Great Recession. This is the case even as both surveys have changed how they ask Americans about their income during this time.

US Census Bureau


Finally, the new poverty data reveal the racial and ethnic inequities in the disproportionate rates of poverty among children. The graphic below shows dramatically higher rates of child poverty among Black and Latino children as compared to White children, and also higher rates of poverty among young women than young men.

National Poverty Infographic (CLASP)


Here in California, children of color disproportionally experience poverty and hardship:

  • Nearly one-third of black children (31.0 percent) lived in poverty in 2015,
  • The rate for Latino children was nearly as high (28.5 percent), and
  • If the official poverty rate for black and Latino children were equal to the poverty rate of white children, nearly 950,000 fewer California children would live in poverty, and the state’s child poverty rate would be cut in half (CB&PC).


A rising tide is not lifting all boats, and while we celebrate the progress made, these numbers urge us to do more for our most vulnerable populations as we work to end hunger in California.  


Written by Sarah Palmer DeFrank, CAFB Advocacy Manager

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