The number of Californians living in poverty grew for the fourth straight year in 2010, more evidence that continued high unemployment and a struggling economy are weighing on the state's families.
About 6 million Californians had incomes below the federal poverty line of $22,113 for a family of four in 2010, census data released Tuesday show. That's 16.3% of the population, up from 15.3% in 2009.
Nearly 1 in 5 residents lacked health insurance last year, one of the highest rates in the nation. Median household income in the state, when adjusted for inflation, fell 4.6% to $54,459. That's the largest decline in a single year since record keeping began.
"The latest data show that the Great Recession had a very profound impact on California, particularly families with children," said Jean Ross, executive director of the nonpartisan research group California Budget Project. "We saw a very significant increase in poverty and a significant decrease in the purchasing power of the income of the typical California household."
Sluggish consumer spending is slowing California's recovery in the short term. But the consequences of poverty can reverberate for decades.
Children raised in poverty are less likely to go to college than children from wealthier families, and they often have more health problems throughout life, Ross said. That could have negative consequences for California's workforce, which already has a shortage of educated workers, according to a recent study by the Brookings Institution.
Also Tuesday, a law enforcement group called Fight Crime: Invest in Kids warned that rising child poverty rates could lead to higher crime rates in the future.
"Childhood poverty is a consistent risk factor for becoming a violent criminal or a victim of crime," said Miriam Rollin, the group's national director.
California's unemployment rate averaged 12.4% in 2010. In July, there were 2.2 million unemployed in the state, and unemployment was at 12%. One-third of the unemployed — about 727,000 people — have been out of work for a year or more, and many have exhausted their unemployment benefits.
Erik Navratil, 17, has spent the last four years in transition since his father lost his job as a mortgage broker. The teenager is staying with friends because his family lost their house. His mother, father and brother each are living in different places until they can scrape together enough money for rent.
"Our lives are in turmoil," Navratil said.
His mother, Catherine Navratil, said the separation has been hard on everyone. She said the worst was when Erik volunteered to drop out of school to help support the family. She refused to let him do it.
"It's horrible. I have minor children and I couldn't even be with them," she said. "It broke my heart. You want to be there to comfort them when they're sad and upset."
Food stamps have helped the family survive, she said. About 1.4 million Californians participated in the federal food stamp program in 2010, up from 1.1 million the year before.
Government cash assistance to low-income families with children was rolled back in the most recent state budget, said Ross of the California Budget Project. That reduced the amount of time families can receive aid to four years, from five. Grant levels were reduced 13% starting in June, she said.
"That's troubling given continued high unemployment," she said. "Even individuals that have a strong work history are having a tough time finding jobs."
As unemployment and poverty deepen in California, millions of people are also forgoing health insurance and basic healthcare that would keep them from becoming ill and landing in hospitals.
Poverty-stricken individuals and families wind up "living sicker, dying younger and being one emergency room visit away from financial ruin," said Anthony Wright, executive director of the consumer group Health Access California.
Without health insurance, Brooke Hesla has watched her health and her finances deteriorate.
The San Bernardino college student said she has endured two urinary tract infections in recent years, resorting to an unconventional if relatively inexpensive treatment — antibiotics for livestock bought at a local feed store.
To treat a scraped foot, the 27-year-old journalism student said she filled her bathtub with scalding water and bleach — a homespun remedy to kill infection.
"I pray to God that nothing makes me too sick that it puts me out of commission," she said.
Hesla said she ran up about $18,000 in medical bills for an emergency room visit during one of her infections and other medical care, but that she has no money to pay collectors. And there's no money for health insurance either.
"The income is just not there," said Hesla, who works part time as an auto mechanic.
In 2010, 19.4% of Californians had no insurance, the census reported. That equates to 7.2 million people.
California last year ranked eighth among states with the highest rates of people without insurance. Texas topped the list with 24.6% of its residents uninsured, followed by New Mexico (21.6%) and Nevada (21.3%).
Other numbers released Tuesday illuminated a gap in the region's economy and the state of its families. In various metropolitan regions throughout the state, gross domestic product grew in 2010, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported. The Los Angeles metro area had the second-highest GDP in the nation last year, $735 billion, a 2.5% increase from the previous year, and the San Francisco metro area ranked eighth, with a GDP of $325 billion, a 2.3% rise.
Yet even as GDP grew, incomes decreased statewide last year. The census shows that California's 2010 median household income when adjusted for inflation fell 4.6% from 2009 and 9% from 2006.