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Strategies to Build Economic Security in California , Shortcomings of the Official Federal Poverty Measures , Better Tools to Measure Economic Need in California , Improving Lives in California Using Better Measures , Self-Sufficiency Calculator , What Our Partners Are Saying , Our History

Three in ten non-elderly California households struggle to make ends meet. However, the federal poverty measure captures only about a third of the nearly 2.9 million households in California who need assistance. The other two-thirds fall through the cracks of our support systems, unable to qualify for many programs that would strengthen their efforts to gain economic stability.

Through the Insight Center's Californians for Economic Security (CFES), the California arm of Building Economic Security for All (BESA), we work to help all Californians achieve a basic level of economic security so they have enough money to not only cover the expenses of everyday life like rent, food, child care, health care, transportation, and taxes, but also enough to begin to develop and/or draw on savings and assets. Savings and assets are what enable people to cover the costs of emergencies, build an economically secure future, and leave poverty behind, for good. CFES is a broad-based coalition of over 400 legislators, advocates, direct service providers and foundations who support policies and programs that build economic security for families and the communities in which they live.

Strategies to Build Economic Security in California

Having been a leader on this issue since 1997, the Insight Center uses a combination of strategies to build economic security in California. We:

  • Research to inform decision-makers about what it truly costs to make ends meet and which populations are struggling the most in which regions of California
  • Organize local organizations who convene statewide education and mobilization campaigns to develop systems which support, rather than hinder, families in their own efforts towards economic stability
  • Advocate to transform the way we measure and combat poverty in California and the U.S. through legislative and administrative reforms, and by developing best practices on the ground
  • Educate policymakers, foundations, businesses, and the media about proven practices to support working families in California
  • Build Capacity of local organizations to design and advocate for effective policies and programs to move families toward economic security through training and one-on-one assistance

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Shortcomings of the Official Federal Poverty Measures

Poverty reduction programs in California and across the country use outdated measures, the Federal Poverty Thresholds and Federal Poverty Guidelines, to determine who needs and receives assistance for many programs. The Federal Poverty Guidelines are "frozen" at the level of a basket of goods and services adequate for families in the 1950s, and updated only for inflation. They do not reflect rapidly increasing costs, such as health care and taxes or "new" costs such as child care; nor do they reflect local differences in the cost of basic goods and services. As a result, tens of thousands of Californians who are not making ends meet do not receive the support they need: the official poverty measure captures only about a third of the California households who need assistance.

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Better Tools to Measure Economic Need in California

Families living in California pay different amounts for basic household goods depending on where they live. For example, in lower-cost Fresno County, a family of two adults, one preschooler, and one school age child needs $59,967 a year to cover the cost of basic needs. But in higher-cost San Francisco County, that same family needs $76,352 a year—over $16,000 more a year—to pay for those same household expenses.

Our organizing and advocacy work focuses on what it actually costs to make ends meet in communities across California, as defined by the Self-Sufficiency Standard for California (Self-Sufficiency Standard), a measure of the income needed to cover basic needs available for 156 different family types in each of California's 58 counties.

Unlike the official federal poverty measures, the Self-Sufficiency Standard uses publicly available data sources to quantify the actual costs of meeting the basic needs for working families by county - without public or private assistance.

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Improving Lives in California Using Better Measures

Over the past decade, policymakers, service providers, advocates, labor unions, foundations, educators, and working families have used the Self-Sufficiency Standard to improve lives in California. They use the tool to:

  • Evaluate the impact of programs and policies
  • Advocate to reform the official poverty measure
  • Adjust eligibility thresholds for certain public benefits
  • Inform wage levels in union contracts
  • Measure the return on investment in grantmaking
  • Evaluate budget proposals at the national, state, and local levels
  • Provide career counseling to educate students and workers on how much income they will need to cover their costs
  • Fundraise to expand programmatic capacity

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Self-Sufficiency Standard Look-up Tool

Developed in 2005 by the Insight Center and Self-Sufficiency Solutions, the Self-Sufficiency Standard Look-Up Tool iallows you to look up the Self-Sufficiency Standard for a specific county and household type in California.

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What Our Partners Are Saying

  • "The Self-Sufficiency Standard is critical to the work of the United Ways throughout the state; it provides us with a true picture of the needs within the communities we serve, informs how we tailor our approaches to increasing financial stability and helps us measure progress toward our collective goals." - Peter Manzo, United Ways of California

  • "We use the Self-Sufficiency Standard to educate policymakers and the public about the needs of low-income households. It is a very useful and credible tool for examining and contrasting the impacts of budget and policy proposals." - Mike Herald, Western Center on Law and Poverty

  • "SETA uses the Self-Sufficiency Standard to define self-sufficiency wages in Sacramento County. We raised the eligibility criteria for intensive case management and training services to the Self-Sufficiency Standard, which has made our employment and training programs available to more people in our community." - Robin Purdy, Sacramento Employment & Training Agency

  • "In 2005, the Self-Sufficiency Standard showed that 93% of service workers at the University of California did not earn a wage high enough to sustain a family of one adult and one child without public assistance. In 2008, we were appalled to find that UC workers had lost ground, with 96% falling below the Self-Sufficiency Standard. This information helped us convince UC in 2009 that we needed a statewide minimum wage that is now lifting our families out of poverty." - Lakesha Harrison, AFSCME Local 3299

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Our History

The Insight Center was one of four leaders that, in 1997, launched the Family Economic Self-Sufficiency Project: an innovative, nation-wide effort to gain support for proven practices to help working families reach economic security, using realistic benchmarks of what it takes to make ends meet in today's economy.  With partners in 37 states and Washington D.C., this work has developed into a national movement to transform the way we measure and address poverty in the United States.

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