California: The not-so-golden state

As director of development at the Second Harvest food bank in Riverside, Tracylyn Sherrit is used to fielding tales of hardship. These days, though, they sometimes come from unexpected quarters.

An elderly woman in Palm Springs recently called, desperate for help. Her family were visiting for Thanksgiving, and she could not afford to feed them.

Riverside County is part of the Inland Empire, a vast sprawl east of Los Angeles that was whacked by the housing bust.

California's inland areas, such as the Inland Empire and, to its north, the agricultural lands of the San Joaquin Valley, long have lagged the coast on indicators such as employment, income and education.

At the California Economic Summit, a recent gathering of state worthies, all the talk was of "two Californias," the wealthy coastal part and the struggling inland section. Cities such as San Bernardino and Fresno reek of poverty and sadness.

Two recent reports suggest, however, that poverty in California's coastal areas may have been significantly understated, thanks largely to high housing costs.

The United States Census Bureau's traditional measure, which pegs the poverty line at $23,492 for a family of four, ignores geographic variations in the cost of living, as well as non-cash benefits such as tax credits. Include these and the poverty rate in Los Angeles County, by far America's largest by population, climbs from 18 percent to 27 percent, according to a recent report from the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality and the Public Policy Institute of California, a think tank.

Most other cities also see big jumps, and San Francisco's rate nearly doubles.

By this accounting California's poverty level rises to 22 percent. The Census Bureau's "supplemental poverty measure," which uses a similar methodology, has it at 23.8 percent, the highest in the country.

Even by the traditional measurement, however, California is 14th. In America's biggest state more than 8 million people struggle to meet their everyday needs and more than one-quarter of children live in poverty.

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