MAP: How Much Does It Really Cost to Live in California?

Save ArticleSave Article

Failed to save article

Please try again

This article is more than 8 years old.
 ( Fibonacci Blue/Flickr)

A single person in California needs to earn, on average, about $12.30/hour working full time to cover basic living expenses.  Add a kid to the mix, and that rate rises sharply to more than $25/hour. 

That's according to the Living Wage Calculator created by Amy K. Glasmeier, a professor of urban planning at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Using data from various government agencies, her team calculated "living wage" rates  for different  household types in each state, county and major metropolitan area across the nation, then compared those rates to regional minimum wages.

"Living wage," as defined by Glasmeier, is the amount an individual needs to earn (before taxes) to cover all basic household expense (food + healthcare + housing + transportation + childcare + other necessities). The rate is based on full-time work (2,080 hours per year).

As her findings underscore, a significant gap often exists between a region's minimum wage and its living wage. It's a discrepancy that's recently been highlighted by protests among low-wage workers, as well as the growing number of cities and states that have raised their own minimum wages in the absence of federal legislation.

Mapped here are living wages for three types of households: single adult, single parent with one child and a parent with a non-working spouse and two children. Mouseover the map to view rates by county or major metropolitan area.  For two-adult households, it assumes that one adult is the sole earner and the other a caregiver. Note that the map has not been updated to reflect California's Jan. 2016 wage increase (to $10/hr), or recently raised minimum wages in certain cities like San Francisco and Oakland. View full-screen version here.  [Article continues below map.]



As Glasmeier notes, these results should be considered the minimum cost threshold; they are likely an underestimate, especially for metropolitan and other higher cost regions.

Below are estimates of how much each adult earner in various-sized California households would need to earn in order to pay for basic monthly living expenses. Keep in mind that these figures are estimated statewide averages. The actual cost of living in California, of course, varies significantly by region. Whereas rent in Stockton may be lower than what's shown here, San Francisco's average rent is, well, fuggedaboutit!

(Additional methodology summarized below the charts and explained in greater detail here.)

Methodology (as explained by MIT's Glasmeier):

"The calculator lists typical expenses, the living wage and typical wages for the selected location ... The tool is designed to provide a minimum estimate of the cost of living for low wage families. The estimates do not reflect a middle class standard of living. The realism of the estimates depend on the type of community under study. Metropolitan counties are typically locations of high cost. In such cases, the calculator is likely to underestimate costs such as housing and child care. Consider the results a minimum cost threshold that serves as a benchmark, but only that. Users can substitute local data when available to generate more nuanced estimates. Adjustments to account for local conditions will provide greater realism and potentially increase the accuracy of the tool. As developed, the tool is meant to provide one perspective on the cost of living in America."