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Insights and Inspiration – Learning from Sarah Bohn and Manuel Pastor

As we learn more about working Californians who are struggling with poverty, each conversation produces insights and inspiration.

That was certainly true for a July 13 learning session that we hosted on the challenges facing California families and young adults with low-income jobs – and the implications for our state. More than 150 people attended a teleconference call to listen and pose questions to two remarkable panelists: labor economist Sarah Bohn of the Public Policy Institute of California and sociologist and economist Manuel Pastor of the University of Southern California.

They shared the latest data on poverty in California, including these troubling statistics:

  • Income inequality is growing faster in California than elsewhere in the U.S. While wages for workers with low incomes declined nationally at a rate of 11 percent since 1980, the drop in California is 19 percent during this period. We now rank fourth highest among all states for income inequality.
  • In California the result is dramatic: California families in the bottom 20 percent of the state based on income make an average of $27,000 or less per year, which for most families is also near or below the poverty line as defined in the California Poverty Measure.
  • Depending on the region, 25-44 percent of jobs are classified as low wage. In other words, behind every software engineer stands an army of janitors and housekeepers, daycare providers, and other workers with low incomes.

Helping us to dig deeper, Manuel and Sarah offered important insights on the drivers and effects of this profound income disparity in our state:

  • Three factors for this growing income disparity include the rise in wealth for the top 1 percent, the increasing requirement for higher education/skills to earn better incomes, and racial inequities in employment practices.
  • Income inequality is increasingly recognized as a drag on overall economic growth, as economists are learning through the study of U.S. cities and regions.
  • And income inequality has been shown to drive our communities farther apart, making it harder to reach consensus in political decision making.

Despite these challenges, Sarah and Manuel maintain hope. Sarah identified bright spots such as California’s increased investment in education, as well as growth in career pathways for Californians.

Manuel told us that he is encouraged by the success of innovative efforts like Integrated Voter Engagement to mobilize new and occasional voters to participate more effectively in the political process. He also sees a growing number of “high-road businesses” with interest in shifting employment and wage practices to elevate workers with low incomes.

Sarah’s recent research demonstrates that programs like the Earned Income Tax Credit can make a difference. While our safety net does not erase poverty, these programs do help reduce disparities and increase civic involvement.

At Irvine, we found the discussion illuminating because we know that the challenges are great, but so too is the opportunity before us to spotlight – and expand – what is working.

We know that learning from outside experts and leaders will help us make smart investments, so we’re grateful to our panelists, participants, and our co-hosts for this event: Northern California Grantmakers, San Diego Grantmakers, and Southern California Grantmakers. As we move forward with efforts to hear directly from our fellow Californians who are working but struggling with poverty, we will continue to share what we’re learning with all of you.

We invite you to listen to a recording of the hour-long conversation and to join the conversation at #IrvineChat. We also look forward to continued updates and dialogue as Irvine advances our evolving focus.

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