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New United Way Report Finds More than 1 in 3 Households in California Struggle to Meet Basic Needs

Thursday, June 7, 2018

United Ways of California is glad to release Struggling to Stay Afloat: The Real Cost Measure in California 2018, our new statewide report on financial challenges for working families.

Unlike the official poverty measure which does not accurately account for local costs of living, the Real ​Cost Measure looks at current costs of a basic needs budget for housing, food, health care, child care, transportation and other basic needs to determine what it truly costs to live in California. The results of this extensive study are presented in a data-rich website that enables users to examine California’s 58 counties at the neighborhood level, with calculated household budgets, county profiles, interactive maps, a public data set and more. 

"The Real Cost Measure puts a stake in the ground on the cost of a decent standard of living for different family sizes in every county in California, and then analyzes how many families in each neighborhood cluster struggle to meet those costs,” said Peter Manzo, President and CEO of United Ways of California. “Our Real Cost Measure report finds that 33 percent of households in California struggle to stay afloat, which is roughly three times as many as federal poverty statistics would indicate."

Some of the key findings from The Real Cost Measure in California 2018 include:

  • 1 in 3 Households Struggle: More than one in three California households (33%) do not earn sufficient income to meet basic needs
  • Working hard, but not earning enough: Of the estimated 3.3 million households in California that fall below the Real Cost Measure, 9 in 10 have at least one working adult (when you control for households led by seniors and people with disabilities) 
  • Housing Burden: Nearly 4 in 10 households in California (38%) pay more than 30% of their income on housing. Households below the Real Cost Measure report spending from 45% of their income on housing to as much as 79% of their income for households below the federal poverty level.
  • Households of all Ethnicities Struggle, but Rate is Higher for Latino and African Americans: Latino households are more likely to struggle compared to other ethnic groups. Over 1.5 million Latino households are estimated to fall below the Real Cost Measure compared to over 1 million white households, 429,000 Asian American households, and 269,000 African-American households
  • Single Mothers: Over 7 in 10 single mothers in California (72%) fall below the Real Cost Measure
  • As Educational Increases, Rate of Struggling Households Falls: Nearly three-fourths of California householders without a high school diploma or equivalent (71%) fall below the Real Cost Measure compared to those with at least a high school diploma (48%), at least some college education (33%), and at least a bachelor’s degree (15%)
  • 6 in 10 Young Children Live in Struggling Households: 57% of households with children under the age of 6 fall below the Real Cost Measure
  • Citizenship and Language Barriers: 45% of households led by a person born outside the U.S. are below the Real Cost Measure, and that number rises to 63% when the householder is not a citizen. Households led by Latino non-citizens struggle most, especially if the household does not include someone over 14 years of age who speaks English well (82% below the Real Cost Measure).
  • Seniors: Nearly 1 in 3 seniors struggle to meet basic needs (29%) according to the Elder Index, a measure by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research


The Real Cost Measure also offers county profiles with detailed budgets that reflect minimum annual household needs at the county level. These household budgets, calculated for 2016, include the cost of housing, child care, food, health care, transportation, 10 percent miscellaneous expenses, tax credits and taxes.

To learn more about the Real Cost Measure, please visit

About United Ways of California

United Ways, across the U.S. and increasingly around the world, focus on improving health, education and financial stability—the building blocks of a good life—for vulnerable low-income families and children. In California, local United Ways collectively raise and invest nearly $200 million and thousands of hours of volunteer efforts in these building blocks.

United Ways of California, a voluntary state network, improves health, education and financial stability for low-income children by enhancing and coordinating the programmatic and advocacy work of California United Ways. For more information, please visit