California Workers Struggle with Poverty

Created: 05 September, 2018
Last update: 20 April, 2022

By Ana Gomez Salcido

Almost one-third of Californians are in the workforce and yet they still struggle with poverty, this according to a new survey released by The Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI).

The survey maps how this group struggles to cover basic housing and healthcare expenses, and how these individuals are more likely than workers who are not struggling with poverty to find themselves exploited at work. The survey also provides a close examination of the lived experience of Californians working and struggling with poverty, including their economic concerns and aspirations, and their beliefs in higher education, family values, and the American Dream.

Key findings indicate that a significant proportion of Californians in the workforce are economically struggling. According to study findings, 31 percent of all Californians are working but struggling with poverty, which translates to 47 percent of the state’s workers.

Californians who are working and struggling with poverty experience notable economic vulnerability and hardships and 56 percent of California workers struggling with poverty say it would be at least somewhat difficult to pay for a $400 emergency expense, compared to only 24 percent of workers not struggling with poverty.

“It is striking that nearly one-third of Californians are finding that the promise of the American Dream—that if you work hard, you’ll get ahead—is not coming true for them,” said PRRI CEO Robert P. Jones. “Grasping the magnitude of this problem and understanding the real-life struggles and hardships that impact these more vulnerable workers, is critical for California policymakers, businesses and non-profits who want to work to create a healthier, more robust employment environment in the state.”

Workers struggling with poverty are also more likely than workers who are more economically secure to report that they or someone in their household experiences a range of economic hardships including putting off seeing a doctor or purchasing medication for financial reasons, having difficulty paying rent or mortgage, being unable to pay a monthly bill, reducing meals or cutting back on food to save money.

Californians working and struggling with poverty are also more likely than workers who are economically secure to report that they or someone in their household encountered a variety of negative workplace experiences in the last year.

“Californians working but struggling with poverty face a web of workplace challenges that make meeting basic housing and healthcare needs extraordinarily difficult,” said PRRI Research Director Dan Cox. “They feel undervalued by their employers and doubt that much can be done to improve their working conditions. And yet, they remain equally optimistic than other workers about achieving the American Dream in California.”

The PRRI 2018 California Workers Survey was conducted by PRRI among a random sample of 3,318 adults (age 18 and up) living in California. Interviews were conducted online in both English and Spanish between May 18 and June 11, 2018.