United Way

Struggling to get by

Struggling to Get By: The Real Cost Measure in California 2021 is a new financial stability report that measures the real cost of living in California’s communities.

Struggling to Get By introduces the Real Cost Measure, a basic needs budget approach to better understand the challenges facing California households. A basic needs budget approach is intuitive and easy for most people to understand, as it is composed of things all families must address such as food, housing, transportation, childcare, out of pocket health expenses, and taxes. A basic needs budget approach takes into account different costs of living in different communities, and also conveys a better sense of the hardship for families with income below the basic needs budget level as it invokes the notion of tradeoffs between competing needs—if you have an inadequate level of income, do you sacrifice on food, gas, or childcare?

Among the questions Struggling to Get By seeks to answer are: What is the true cost of living for struggling households? What do we know about these households and the challenges they face everyday? What do their family configurations look like? How many are led by one or more working adults, and more.

In answering these questions, Struggling to Get By explores the Real Cost Measure through different lenses. At the geographic level, we conduct “apples to applies” comparisons among counties, regions and neighborhoods (through public use microdata areas). We also discuss challenges facing specific households such as single mothers, households with young children, households of color and seniors.

Key Findings

Some of the Key Findings from Struggling to Get By include:

  • Nearly one in three California households—over 3.5 million families (33%)—do not earn sufficient income to meet basic needs
  • Struggling Households Work: Of the estimated 3.5 million households in California that fall below the Real Cost Measure, 97% have at least one working adult.
  • Child Care Costs Can Be Even More Expensive Than Housing for Many Families: In Fresno County, the annual cost of child care for a family with two adults, one pre-schooler and one school-aged child can reach $14,429 versus $19,740 in Orange County.
  • Over Half of Young Children Live in Struggling Households: 54% of households in California with children younger than six-years-old fall below the Real Cost Measure.
  • Households of All Races Struggle, but Is Highest for Latino and Black Families: Over 1.7 million Latino households (or 52% of them) are estimated to not earn enough to get by, compared to over 1.06 million white households (21%); 481,618 Asian American households (28%); 259,516 Black households (41%); and 13,592 Native American/Alaska Native households (39%).
  • Less Education Results in Greater Struggles: Nearly 7 in 10 California households without a high school diploma or equivalent (68%) fall below the Real Cost Measure, compared to those with at least a high school diploma (47%), those with at least some college education (35%), and those with at least a bachelor’s degree (16%).
  • Single Mothers: Over 7 in 10 households led by single mothers in California (71%) fall below the Real Cost Measure.
  • Foreign-Born Households Have More Trouble Meeting Basic Needs: Thirty-six percent of households in California that are led by a person born outside the U.S. are below the Real Cost Measure, a figure which rises to 59% when the household is led by someone without U.S. citizenship. Meanwhile, only 26% of households led by a person born in the U.S. earn income below the Real Cost Measure.

Read the executive summary HERE.

Visit the interactive map page HERE.

Our Focus

Early Childhood Literacy

Financial Stability


We are all part of this community and together we can make it succeed. At United Way of Kern County we believe that UNITED we can make change happen... one day at a time.