Earlimart, Tulare County — After a day of picking grapes for $9.25 an hour, Eva Montes waits in line for food aid in the parking lot of the Veterans Memorial building in Earlimart, a community of 8,537 people.

“You can’t make enough money for what you spend,” Montes says in Spanish while waiting with other farmworkers for her number to be called. Today she’ll take home a box of bagged greens and other produce distributed by a local non-profit.

“Sometimes, you don’t earn enough to buy things for what the children need for school, or food for the house, or personal expenses … like house payments or bills.”

Montes is part of a growing economic problem in California: low wage workers are getting poorer, and there are more of them.

There were about 354,800 Californians working full-time and year-round in 2013 living under the federal poverty limit, according to the nonprofit California Budget and Policy Center. That’s 3.1 percent of California’s full-time workforce, double the rate it was 35 years ago.

“A low-wage worker today earns less than a similar worker would a generation ago,” said Luke Reidenbach, policy analyst with the center, which researches how state policy affects low- and middle-income Californians. “Even as the economy grows, that’s not resulting in an increase of their hourly wages, and so over time the value of their wages has eroded.”

Pay for California’s bottom 20 percent of wage-earners has declined by 11.3 percent since 1979, when adjusted for inflation, according to the center.

Other research has tried to calculate the tax cost of California’s working poor. UC Berkeley Labor Center, a liberal-leaning research group, estimates low-wage California workers and their dependents received $14.3 billion a year in cash assistance, health care, food stamps and tax credits between 2007 and 2012.

The California Department of Health and Human Services doesn’t have its own estimate on how much the state spends on public assistance for working people, and declined to comment on the accuracy of the labor center’s estimate.

Looking at another measure that takes public assistance benefits and regional costs of living into account, almost 8 in 10 Californians considered poor by the government’s standards in 2012 lived in a family where someone worked, according to the nonprofit, nonpartisan Public Policy Institute of California.

“At the very least, we would expect work to lift people out of poverty,” Reidenbach said.

Residents of Earlimart, CA, wait under the shade of a tree on a hot day to receive food aid. Pauline Bartolone for CALmatters

These economic trends are part of what has ignited a movement among labor and policymakers to raise the minimum wage beyond California’s scheduled $1 increase to $10 an hour on Jan. 1, 2016.

Researchers say the new $10 minimum is expected to bump a family of three with one full-time, year-round worker above the federal poverty limit. But others say when regional living expenses are considered, a family of three living in the Los Angeles region, the San Francisco Bay Area and other expensive parts of the state will have trouble making ends meet on one person’s minimum wage job.

Who Are the Working Poor?

Overall, more low-wage workers are older than they were in 1979, although on average they are younger than the workforce as a whole, according to the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

More than half of today’s low-wage workers in California are Latino, according to the labor center, and 40 percent were born outside the United States. As a whole, the share of the working poor that had some college education is 9 percent more than it was a generation ago. The majority of low-wage workers, 53 percent, have only a high school education or less.

The working poor also live in urban areas, where they work as cashiers, cooks, waitresses, maids and nursing aides.

Fausto Hernandez Garcia, 56, of Los Angeles is one of them. He searches for cardboard and scrap metal on his days off to supplement the $9 an hour he is paid at a car wash. He claims he’s not always paid for the hours he works.

Juan Valentin, 26, of Stockton says he, his wife and his two young children are “living by the day,” scraping by on his $10.50-an-hour job at a bagged lettuce company. His savings are only enough to buy a dress for his 5-year-old daughter, he said.

Kazoua Yang, 23, is paid $9.25 an hour as a cashier at a grocery store in Fresno. Before her boyfriend got a steady job, their family of three needed food stamps and qualified for Medi-Cal.

Kazoua Yang, 23, left, with her son and boyfriend, Pedro. Kazoua is paid $9.25 an hour as a full-time cashier at a grocery store in Fresno. Credit: Pauline Bartolone for CALmatters

“Part of this problem is the quality of low-wage work,” Reidenbach said. “It’s not just about effort; it’s not just about family conditions; it’s about whether or not the jobs that are available to people are paying enough to allow them to make ends meet.”

Forecasting more low-wage jobs

The top five occupations that are projected to grow the highest number of jobs by 2022 will be low wage — under $12 an hour, according to California’s Employment Development Department. That includes personal care aides, retail workers, and food prep and service staff.

According to the UC Berkeley Labor Center, some of those workers may need public assistance. The labor center says more than half of fast-food workers and nearly half of homecare and childcare workers rely on some form of public assistance.

“When jobs don’t pay enough for people to survive and support their families, it means we have a lot of (taxpayer) money targeted into those working families,” said Ken Jacobs of the labor center.

Jobs in 2012 compared to projected jobs in 2022

The struggles of the working poor have received new attention at the state Capitol; anti-poverty committees have formed, and this past legislative session, another minimum wage increase was proposed, as well as bills to ease the burden of bankruptcy, wage garnishment, and to remove a cap on cash assistance.

Now, two competing state ballot proposals to raise the minimum wage to $15 statewide, one by 2020 and the other by 2021, are trying to qualify for the 2016 election.

Meanwhile, 15 local governments from San Diego to Emeryville in the San Francisco Bay Area have voted to raise the minimum wage to as high as $15 an hour over the next five years.

The California Business Roundtable, a Sacramento-based lobbying group for large employers in the state, hasn’t yet taken a position on raising the minimum wage.

“We’re taking our time,” said Robert Lapsley, president of the business roundtable, which says its membership doesn’t employ a lot of low-wage workers.

Lapsley said the business community understands there’s a large “underclass” in California, and it’s still evaluating its role in reducing poverty. “We have to be able to figure out a way to provide some balance.”

Lapsley said the state — not individual cities — needs to take the lead in figuring out the right approach to raising the minimum wage, including accounting for regional economic differences.

“What may be good in one spot in terms of $15 does not necessarily apply in another spot,” he said. “L.A. has a much higher cost of living even (compared) to Northern California.”

Lapsley says policy discussions about raising the minimum wage so that one worker’s earnings could keep a family out of poverty is “the wrong debate.” Instead, he said, the focus should be on strengthening the state’s manufacturing sector, and creating higher-paying jobs that low-wage workers can move into.

“A minimum-wage job has always been the role of an entry-level position into the workforce,” Lapsley said. “(Those jobs are) to help get people initially trained and then move into a … different job so that they have a long-term future.”

Farmworkers on the food line

The Rural Foundation for Community Advancement organizes food giveaways several times a month in Earlimart. Produce is given on “vegetable day”; the rest of the time, it’s packaged goods. Organizers make sure the event takes place in the late afternoon.

“If we give it from 2 p.m. to 4 p.m., we catch everybody that’s coming from work,” said Domingo Trevino, vice president of the nonprofit foundation. “Even if they’re working, they’re barely surviving.”

Forty-four percent of workers in the southern Central Valley earn a low wage, the highest percentage among all California regions, according to UC Berkeley.

Food aid from the Fresno-based Community Food Bank serves an average of 285,000 people monthly in Fresno, Madera, Kings, Tulare and Kern counties. The food bank is funded through a mix of taxpayer dollars and private donations, including from Walmart.

“It has moved from being supplemental (food) assistance, so just a couple days, to individuals really reliant on it for weeks at a time,” says Natalie Caples, program director of the food bank.

Maria Veronica Manriquez joined dozens of others in Earlimart on a hot day to wait for some of the food bank giveaways. Manriquez’ husband is a seasonal agricultural worker, and the family earns between $16,000 and $24,000 a year. The mother of two said she recently had to stop working to take care of a sick child and is now receiving food stamps.

“To survive here, you have to both work,” Manriquez said. “When only one person works it is more difficult.

“They need to raise the wages, not the (price) of products,” said Manriquez, noting the high cost of eggs. “It’s not enough for us … that’s the truth.”

We want to hear from you

Want to submit a guest commentary or reaction to an article we wrote? You can find our submission guidelines here. Please contact CalMatters with any commentary questions: commentary@calmatters.org