(Courtesy Creative Commons)
(Courtesy Creative Commons)

Sgt. Camelia Straughn, a Sacramento resident and 20-year vet in the U.S. National Guard, is deployed right now in Cuba. For her, active duty on the Caribbean island that is currently re-establishing ties with the United States means overseeing the logistics of her platoon.

While Straughn is making sure all the ships run on time for the service men and women stationed with her—and that everyone has what they need to get their jobs done—she finds herself constantly thinking about her children back in California. That worry has become a central part of her daily routine.  Do they have everything they need? Do they have enough food or pocket change? Can they stretch their allowance into the next week to cover everything they need?

Straughn, who is a single mom, says she has always been realistic with her kids. She has a 25-year-old adult son and two teens: a 16-year-old daughter and her baby, a 14-year-old son. She says she has always been up front with them, insisting they excel in their studies and extra-curricular activities to secure scholarships for higher education because there is a “99 percent chance that mommy will not be able to pay for college.”

“I always pay my rent first,” says Straughn, who complements her military income by working as a life coach.  “Then, I generally pay a little on everything else so nothing gets shut off. Because of my tight budget, we can’t afford a lot of meats or fresh fruits, so we stock up on pre-packaged foods.”

Straughn is not alone. One in three California households (31 percent of all households in the state)—almost 99 percent of them with at least one  head of household working full time—do not make bring home enough money to cover basic costs of living. That’s according to a new study titled “Struggling to Get By: The Real Cost Measure in California 2015.”

The report assesses the financial stability of families in California using an index called the Real Cost Measure. It takes a “bare-boned” look at  basic needs by assessing the things all families need to allot monies for – transportation, childcare, health expenses, taxes, housing, food, etc. Then, it looks at the real cost of those things by location in the state.

“ We hope our report helps put the focus on actual families, and allows people see the real costs of living in a particular community and the trade-offs that low-income families face if their income is not enough to meet those costs,” says Peter Manzo, CEO and President of United Ways of California, the not-for-profit education, health and poverty advocacy organization that conducted the research.  “Do they double up in an apartment with relatives or another family, do they go without child care or medical care, skimp on food, or some combination of all of those?”

Manzo says, with the findings of the study, United Ways of California hopes to ease the financial burdens of working families in California.

“If we’re successful, community residents, United Ways and other community organizations, business leaders, philanthropy and policymakers will take the results into account when they make important decisions that affect these families,” he hopes.

The Real Cost Measure employed by United Ways of California to compile the data for “Struggling to Get By” is different from other indices that have historically measured poverty. Manzo says it digs deeper, relying, in part, on U.S. Census data to paint a more precise, more factual picture of what families need to survive and the basic needs they have to forgo to make it in particular areas of the state. Each year, he says, families that fall below the Real Cost Measure across the state wind up $10,000 to $30,000 short of what they need to meet their basic needs.

“We do a Real Cost Measure budget for each county,” he says. “Only then can you can start to segment what might be helpful for single mothers or what might be helpful to non-English speakers, and so on, in a particular community. We think using  actual data about the cost of living for these families is a better way to bring about concrete steps that impact people’s lives  in each of the 58 counties.”

For minorities, the “Struggling to Get By” report paints a grim picture.  Minority households disproportionately have inadequate incomes. For Latino households, 51 percent have incomes below the Real Cost Measure. That number is 40 percent for African-American California households and, 28 percent for Asian Americans but only 20 percent for Whites. Los Angeles County, where there are 13 million residents (most of them Black or Latino) and  65 neighborhoods with, on average, with about 150,0000 people – has the bottom five neighborhoods in the state based on the Real Cost Measure. They are these U.S. Census-designated areas : Watts, Huntington Park, USC/ Bell Gardens, South Central Los Angeles and Los Angeles County Central.

Manzo recognizes that there needs to be more awareness for the data his group has crunched to register and begin to impact state policy, so everyday Californians should begin to share the stories of their hardship.

“It may seem like just a little thing, but policymakers and civic leaders do need to hear from community residents as often as possible – even if it’s  just a call or a short e-mail,” he says.

Meanwhile, United Ways of California has sent copies of the “Struggling the Get By” report to lawmakers in Sacramento. After that, the group plans to go door-to-door visiting legislators and policymakers around the state. They will extend that effort at the regional, county and municipal levels.

“It would be nice to be able to save more money,” says Straughn. “You know, plan ahead for the future or for a rainy day.”