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California has always been a land of opportunity. But today, many Californians struggle to achieve their dreams.


The Golden State has a storied history of attracting pioneers — brave individuals willing to work hard to create a better life for themselves and their families. But many Californians face barriers distancing them from the opportunities that can deliver on California’s promise. (Read the 2018 PRRI California Workers Report for more insights on California's workforce and those working but struggling with poverty.)

Struggling economically in CALIFORNIA


about 4 in 10 California residents are living in or near poverty.

According to official poverty statistics, 15.3% of Californians lacked enough resources — about $24,000 per year for a family of four — to meet basic needs in 2015. The rate has declined significantly from 16.4% in 2014, but it is well above the recent low of 12.4% reached in 2007. Moreover, the official poverty line does not account for California’s housing costs or other critical family expenses and resources.


Most poor families in California are working.

In 2013, 78% of poor Californians lived in families with at least one adult working, excluding families made up only of adults age 65 and older. For 53.8% of those in poverty, at least one family member reported working full time. For another 24.2%, at least one adult was working part time.


Poverty in California. Source: Public Policy Institute of California

As part of our focus on expanding economic and political opportunity for young people and families who are working but struggling with poverty, The James Irvine Foundation partnered with local nonprofits to speak directly with our fellow Californians.


our Goals

We want to better understand how to expand opportunity for working Californians who are struggling to get by — and to have their voices heard by those making decisions in and for their community. What we heard on the ground will help us:


Inform Irvine's new strategic focus and grantmaking, including grantmaking areas we are exploring like Career Readiness and Living-Wage Work and Worker Voice and Influence.


Turn the insights and stories collected from Californians into rich, actionable data to inform Irvine’s future grantmaking.

In Community Listening Sessions held across the state, we heard firsthand the hopes, fears, challenges, and dreams of Californians. We learned that people are working harder than ever for less income and opportunity. And, they often feel their voices are not heard by those in power.

We know there are 10.8 million Californians who are working but struggling with poverty. We also know that statistics and surveys are useful to a point — they show scale but can’t tell us who people are, what their lives are like, or what they care about.

To ensure Californians have a direct say in the changes they want for their communities, we spoke to individuals representing different geographies, ethnicities, backgrounds, ages, immigration statuses, and sectors of work. In each session, we met problem solvers who stitch together resources in order to support themselves and their families, but who also are resilient in the face of economic and political inequity. We can all learn from their experiences and perspectives.


We heard from Californians like

Union members working as home health aides in L.A.

Union members working as home health aides in L.A.

Migrant workers and their families in California’s agricultural regions

Migrant workers and their families in California’s agricultural regions

Young adults balancing school and work in urban areas

Young adults balancing school and work in urban areas

Low-wage service workers in the Bay Area

Low-wage service workers in the Bay Area

Adults looking for a second chance and a living wage in Southern California

Adults looking for a second chance and a living wage in Southern California


Californians simply want to build a better life for themselves and for their family. But the American Dream often seemed out of reach for participants.



After listening to more than 400 people from across the state, it became clear that opportunities abound in California, but those opportunities feel unattainable for many of the participants we heard from.

These Californians who are working but struggling economically told us about their challenges, frustrations, and fears — but they spoke most passionately about their aspirations for the future. Some conversations centered on the creative and cultural experiences in their lives as sources of energy, inspiration, and hope. 

After extensive analysis and synthesis of their stories, we identified five common themes related to these aspirations, and the challenges that stand in their way. We also took away insights related to the role creativity plays in their daily lives.



theme 1

I want to live without making extreme tradeoffs.

Despite working hard, too many Californians still have to make difficult decisions about what they can afford in order to survive.



theme 2

I want to live without fear and anxiety.

Busy schedules, unfriendly work environments, and unsafe situations make day-to-day life feel fragile and unstable.



theme 3

I want to be treated with dignity.

Working Californians who are struggling with poverty yearn for respect for their contributions at work and in their communities. 




I want to be connected to a strong community network.

Those who are physically or socially isolated from strong personal and professional networks miss out on vital information, resources, and support.



theme 5

I want the opportunity to make my situation better.

Some Californians feel trapped in their current situation, leaving them unable to make progress toward their goals.



insights on creative expression

With limited time, energy, and resources, Californians who are working but struggling economically still find ways to exercise their creativity. We asked participants about how they practice their ability to create and why they’re passionate about those activities.