Statement: “Do you know what we’re No. 1 at? We’re No. 1 in America in poverty. Twenty-four percent of Californians – you take the low income and the high cost of living – 24 percent of Californians today are living in poverty,” GOP gubernatorial candidate Neel Kashkari said at Voice of San Diego’s Politifest on Aug. 9.

Determination: Mostly True

Analysis: When Neel Kashkari joined us on the Politifest stage, he was eager to point out problems facing California and how he’d fix them if elected governor. At the top of his list: lack of quality education and not enough good jobs.

He took those concerns one step further, and said that when taken together, failing schools and a lack of jobs culminate in a title California shouldn’t be proud of: the poorest state in the nation, with 24 percent of Californians living in poverty.

So are nearly a quarter of Californians impoverished, and are we the worst in the country? The answers depend on the numbers you look at.

The U.S. Census Bureau has two yearly reports that determine state poverty percentages: the official measure and the supplemental measure.

By the official measure, Kashkari would be wrong. California’s poverty rate is 16.5 percent, and the state ranks 14th worst in the country. But if you look at the supplemental measure, Kashkari has his facts straight: California has the highest poverty rate in the nation at 23.8 percent.

Let’s break down the differences between the two. One of the biggest is that the official poverty measure doesn’t take into account the different costs to live in each state, while the supplemental one does.

The official poverty measure holds the most authority. It has been determined roughly the same way since the 1960s. It focuses on what it costs to feed the average person a no-frills diet, multiplies that cost by three (under the now-outdated assumption that a third of low-income peoples’ cash is spent on food) and adjusts the number by family size and for inflation. If a family’s income falls below that threshold, they are considered poor.

The official poverty measure is used to determine eligibility for various government programs like food stamps and Medicaid, said Gordon Dahl, a professor of economics at UC San Diego.

But Dahl and other economists agree that the official poverty measure is too limited. Low-income families spend money on more than just food, and costs depend heavily on where they live. To account for additional spending and government assistance, in 2010 the Census Bureau began releasing a supplemental poverty measure.

That measure tallies up personal income and any non-cash government benefits, like food stamps and housing subsidies, that low-income individuals receive. But unlike the official measure, the supplemental one also takes into account necessary expenses beyond food. It adds in others like taxes, child care, transportation and housing costs. The supplemental measure provides a fuller picture of just how many people are impoverished, Dahl said.

Beyond the two government-issued poverty measures, there are lots of ways to determine who is poor. The Public Policy Institute of California, a nonpartisan think tank, recently examined the role of state safety net programs in keeping people from poverty, for instance.

Despite all these differences, Kashkari’s statement includes enough context to give him a positive fact check rating. He’s relying on a government-issued poverty measure, and one that economists believe is a better way to understand who is poor than the more official alternative. He also accurately described that he was relying on a poverty measure that included cost of living as a factor. The only important nuance here is that he wasn’t referring to the “official” measure of poverty, which puts California in a slightly better light. Kashkari gets a Mostly True.

If you disagree with our determination or analysis, please express your thoughts in the comments section of this blog post. Explain your reasoning.

Gwyneth is an intern for Voice of San Diego.

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