THE LOS ANGELES regional food bank distributes 300,000 meals a month, but that, says its director, Michael Flood, is only a fraction of what the hungry 1.4m people in the county need. The bank resembles the vast warehouse operation of a supermarket chain, with apartment-sized refrigerators and fork-lift trucks processing millions of pounds of groceries. Every hour, a dozen or so of the 650 soup kitchens in the city arrive to collect sandwiches for the homeless (who cannot cook anything on the streets) or groceries for families.
At one of these, the Interfaith Food Centre in Santa Fe Springs, dozens of people are queuing. A few are homeless, living on the dry river bed behind the centre. Most are on minimum or fixed incomes. Dianka Espinosa is a graduate student at Rio Hondo, a local community college—hardly a typical food-aid recipient. But like many Californians, she was one event away from poverty. That event was her husband’s deportation. He not only left her behind, but their three children; her hopes of a better job hang by the thread of a weekly food parcel. And this is happening in one of America’s richest cities.
If you were to ask most Americans which is the poorest state in the nation, they might say Alabama or Mississippi, with their low average incomes and concentrations of African-American poverty. In fact, the state with the largest share of people in poverty is California. As the most populous state, it also has by far the largest number of poor people, 7.4m.
Many measures of poverty exist. The official poverty line is used as a guide as to who should get federal assistance. The state where the largest share of people fall below that line is Mississippi; California is roughly in the middle. But the official poverty line is the same in every state and takes no account of different living costs or of public assistance. So in 2011 the Census Bureau came up with a Supplemental Poverty Measure (SPM), which most social scientists think a better way of comparing levels of poverty across the country. By this yardstick, 19% of Californians were poor in the three years 2015, 2016 and 2017, the highest rate in the country excluding the special case of Washington, DC. The national average was 14.1%.
With its many undocumented immigrants, California poses special measurement problems. So two institutions in the state, the Public Policy Institute of California and the Centre on Poverty and Inequality of Stanford University, created their own California Poverty Measure (CPM). This confirms that 19.4% of Californians did not have enough resources to meet basic needs in 2016, down from 21.8% in 2011. And it provides more details.
California’s poverty map has changed, argues Sarah Bohn, of the PPIC. Indigence used to be concentrated inland, in agricultural regions with lots of cheap, seasonal labour. Now the poorest counties are on the southern coast, including Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Most of the poor have jobs: 80% of those living below the CPM’s poverty line are in households with at least one person in work. Latinos are somewhat more likely to be poor than average. But a better predictor of poverty is lack of a university education: 35% of those with only a high-school diploma are poor. Shockingly, 45% of children live in households that are poor or near-poor (living below 150% of the poverty line). By the time they are 18, estimates Mr Flood, half the children of the Golden State will have made use of food stamps or food banks.
California is not only America’s poorest state. It is also among the richest. According to the Census Bureau, its median household income in 2016 was $11,500 above the national average. So why, asks Frank Mecca, head of the County Welfare Directors’ Association, the people responsible for overseeing the state’s assistance to the poor, has a state that creates so much wealth been unable to address the problem of poverty?
The problem can be misunderstood. Poverty is not a result of economic decline or lack of jobs. California’s GDP rose 78% in real terms in the two decades to 2017, overtaking Britain to become the world’s fifth-largest economy. The number of people with jobs has grown almost without interruption since 2011. In September unemployment stood at…