Los Angeles has the highest poverty rate among California counties, according to a new analysis announced Monday that upends traditional views of rural and urban hardship by adding factors such as the soaring price of city housing.
The measurement, developed by researchers with the Public Policy Institute of California and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, found that 2.6 million, or 27%, of Los Angeles County residents lived in poverty in 2011. The official poverty rate for the county, based on the U.S. Census' 2011 American Community Survey, is 18%.
The new analysis set California's poverty rate at 22%, the highest in the nation, compared with the official rate of 16%. Counties such as Placer and Sacramento, with more moderate housing costs, have lower poverty rates than those of metropolitan areas, researchers said.
"We always see maps of official poverty and think of the Central Valley as the most impoverished," said economist Sarah Bohn, a research fellow at the public policy institute and one of the study's authors. "This really turns that on its head."
The new model aims to present a fuller picture of poverty by taking into account living expenses and government benefits ignored in the official formula.
Social scientists have argued for decades that the federal definition of poverty, which dates to the early 1960s, falls short on two counts: ignoring the benefits of government aid, including food stamps, Social Security, subsidized housing and tax credits, and failing to account for regional cost differences in transportation, healthcare and housing.
The report released Monday found that although many Californians find it difficult to make ends meet, things would be much worse without state, federal and local safety net programs, including food stamps, CalWORKs and the earned income tax credit. Out-of-pocket medical costs, however, increase the hardship, particularly for Californians over 65, the report said.
The U.S. Census Bureau for the last two years has released its own alternative poverty rate that attempts to recalibrate the poverty threshold. The rate is for research purposes only, but if adopted nationally, it could lead to a dramatic redistribution of federal funding in state and local jurisdictions.
The new California estimates could add to the pressure for change.
"People in Los Angeles deserve more help from the federal government than people in Mississippi," said Dowell Myers, professor of policy, planning and development at USC.
Myers said there has been tremendous resistance to adjusting the poverty rate, "even when it makes total sense."
Daniel Flaming, president of the Economic Roundtable, cautioned the rural poor often have higher transportation costs and fewer social service agencies than their city counterparts.
The rural poor are isolated "and there are very few places to turn for help," he said.