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.


Tradeoffs are a part of life, but some of the people we spoke with face particularly tough decisions about what they can afford on a weekly basis. A key factor is the high cost of living in many California communities: Housing is critical for stability, yet rent is often the most burdensome cost for individuals and families.  

Housing costs can have a ripple effect that leads to various tradeoffs that alter or disrupt pathways to opportunity. For example, working to pay the bills might influence one’s decision to devote time and resources to completing high school and/or postsecondary education.

Other critical decisions can happen quickly and have long-lingering effects: When a child gets sick and childcare isn’t available or affordable, a parent risks losing wages for the day or even possibly losing his or her job.





For many of the Californians we met, progress too often comes with a downside. The rules established by their employers, landlords, or government agencies kept them from pursuing new opportunities.  

For instance, home care workers in Los Angeles are only approved to get paid for a certain number of hours each week. However, unforeseen circumstances like longer-than-anticipated travel times to each client add extra hours to home care workers’ days — hours for which they may not be compensated.

Another example we heard was from a young mother in El Centro: She lives with her children and parents in a multi-generational household because she can’t afford rent on her own. But she also can’t apply for government assistance because the combined household income — with three working adults — is too high.

This hotel job is my third one as a housecleaner. The other one is at a hospital. Since I was doing several jobs, my income was too high and I could have lost my family’s white card [Medi-Cal].
— Hotel Housekeeper, San Francisco

When you’re trying to get ahead, the system limits you. If you make more money, they raise your rent or they lower your food stamps. You can never really get ahead.

— Participant, Fresno





From peaceful marches to the “Fight for $15” some participants found ways to advocate for themselves and others. However, many Californians need to focus on the immediate challenge of making ends meet. In their downtime, they spend time with their families and recharge. Some don’t feel that they have the time or energy to make their voices heard by people in power. This is particularly true for those who are unaffiliated with local groups or organizations focused on community activism.


This doesn’t mean that participants don’t care; their day-to-day lives are just too complex and demanding. When their voices are heard, it is usually in more personal ways. For instance, many parents advocate for their children at school through attending parent-teacher conferences. Some meet with teachers and administrators if they feel that their child isn’t getting the attention he or she needs or if there is a problem or conflict to be resolved.

Other participants organize meetings with their neighbors to make change in their own community. Some described leading neighborhood cleanups or beautification projects.


The first question asked to participants in the listening sessions was: “What’s the biggest challenge that prevents you from building the best possible life for yourself?” This question helped us to understand the challenges that are top-of-mind for participants. The majority of conversations did not focus on participants’ ability to make their voices heard by people in power. Instead, the most common challenges participants told us about were around work, education, and money.


Because I have to work and provide for my family, I don’t have the time to really be there or participate in community meetings.

— Participant, Ontario

I work all the time. I want my kids to do stuff like regular kids. So, even if I don’t get to see them, I want them to do gymnastics and sports. I tell them ‘just come to work with me.’

— Home Healthcare Worker, Lancaster





The skyrocketing costs of higher education are weighing down an entire generation, and their families.

As some young Californians became more informed about the costs, they grew more aware of the financial burden that it may place on their families.

For some parents, providing their children with a good education is a top priority — one they work tirelessly to fulfill. However, with multiple children graduating from high school and resources stretched thin, compromises have to be made. 

Sometimes this means only one child can pursue their dreams of college. Sometimes a family incurs even more debt (e.g., tuition, living expenses) while their child attends university. While college is often seen as the sole secure pathway to a better life, too often it comes at too high of a cost for young people and their families.

Some participants had to give up the opportunity to pursue an education. They did not get their high school diplomas or GEDs because their families needed them to work and contribute to their families financially.

And some young Californians who are still a few years away from high school graduation talked about their struggle to prepare themselves for college.

In one rural community, a young man shared that help in the form of tailored guidance counseling in his high school is limited or nonexistent. Another young man shared how he is always told to “come back later” when he asks for information about applying to college. They both spoke about their frustrations.

Ultimately, investing in higher education is a gamble that doesn’t pay off for some Californians. One or more degrees does not guarantee well-paying work, nor does it guarantee steady employment.

We met one young woman in Oakland who has a master’s degree, but is underemployed in a part-time position. She still struggles to get by every month. We met participants who weren’t able to find jobs in their fields after graduating. Some college graduates looked for low-wage work outside of their field just to make ends meet, but they were sometimes turned away for being “over-qualified” for the job.


I am sending my eldest child to college. I can’t afford to send any of my other children.

— Participant, Coachella Valley

I got my certificate to be a medical receptionist, but no one told me there’s not enough jobs for all of us. There’s one job for dozens of people. I feel like I wasted my money.

— Participant, Fresno

I just graduated, but I’m already stressed out about how I’m going to pay these loans off.

— Participant, Ontario




We heard that securing affordable, quality childcare is an ever-present need across California, particularly for single parents. For those who cannot rely on family or friends for childcare support, childcare costs take a considerable amount out of each paycheck.


California has one of the highest costs of childcare in the nation. Source: Boston Globe

Specifically, low-wage workers are often unable to pursue new job opportunities because they can’t find affordable or convenient childcare. In two-parent households that would benefit from two sources of income, families are sometimes limited to one income because the cost of childcare outweighs the wages that would be earned by the second parent. Additionally, being out of the workforce during childcare years can make a parent less competitive for better-paying jobs when they return to work.

For families where no one can stay home with the children, the hours of traditional childcare services don’t always align with their schedules. For instance, some jobs call for work on nights and weekends — well outside of most childcare facility hours. More than one worker shared a story of losing a job because a childcare provider fell through.

Childcare is really too expensive for the average Californian. I’m not really sure what the price is out of state, but here it’s ridiculous. It’s really best to stay at home if there’s a 2-parent home because [otherwise] you’re really working to pay off childcare.
— Mobile Research Participant, Tehachapi

The only jobs I can get are on nights or weekends, but I can’t find childcare that works with that schedule.

— Participant, Oakland

Childcare is expensive, but also the waiting lists for affordable childcare are so long. It’s really hard to get in.

— Participant, Fresno





Some of the part-time or low-wage workers we spoke to don’t receive paid time-off or sick leave from their employers. Missing even one day of work means lost wages or, in some instances, job termination. This leaves workers in a precarious situation — one bout of flu away from unemployment. Some working parents shared that they couldn’t risk staying at home to care for sick children.

A majority of cases of workplace injuries result in lost time. Source: California Department of Industrial Relations

For those in physically demanding work environments injury is often a risk. Sometimes employers fire or severely cut the hours of those who become injured on the job. Although these practices are unethical or even illegal, it is the reality for many low-wage workers.

We met individuals across California who were injured on the job, and as a result, are out of work. One agricultural worker in Eastern Coachella Valley severely injured his back, which not only affected his role as his family’s main financial provider but also affected his daughter’s ability to work. After his injury, he was unable to drive his wife to regular doctor’s appointments, so their daughter — now the only other driver in the home — lost her job because she needed to take on the responsibility of her mother’s medical care.

Health insurance is a very big issue because usually employees don’t provide health insurance to [workers]. Most farmworker families end up in the hospital in emergency.
— Sabino, Director of Community Outreach, Center for Community Advocacy, Salinas

If you tell your supervisor, ‘I don’t feel good,’ he’ll tell you to go back to work. My friend, he was almost done unloading his trailer, but he didn’t get paid because he was feeling sick and someone else had to finish it for him.

— Warehouse Worker and High School Student, San Bernardino

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It’s a scary thing to ask for days off or to get sick because you may lose your job. And it’s not fair.

— Mobile Research Participant, Oakland