Stanford students document how low-income Californians make ends meet

Three Stanford students spent the summer conducting interviews with low-income residents in Southern California. The interviews are part of a research study documenting how the poor make ends meet.

The interview begins with a simple but provocative question: “Tell me the story of your life.” From there, each story unfolds differently – some are filled with small triumphs, others with hope, and yet others with trauma and frustration.

Los Angeles downtown skyline with residential area in foreground

Stanford students conducted interviews with low-income residents in Southern California as part of a study examining how families in California are making ends meet. (Image credit: Getty Images)

These stories – nearly 150 in total – were collected this summer as part of a research study led by Stanford sociologist David Grusky about how families in California are making ends meet.

The research team, which included three Stanford research fellows funded by the Office of the Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, spent the summer conducting interviews with residents in four urban neighborhoods in Los Angeles and four suburban and rural areas near San Bernardino.

Grusky notes that California is often regarded as the “land of plenty,” but in fact its poverty rate, 20 percent, is the highest in the country, according to the Census Bureau’s Supplemental Poverty Measure. The poverty rate in many of the neighborhoods in the study is even higher than California’s country-leading rate, said Grusky, who is also the director of the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality.

The purpose of the California Opportunity Study, Grusky said, is to “build policy that responds to what’s actually happening on the ground rather than the stories that all of us – academics, politicians and the general public – like to tell about poverty.”

Hidden from sight

The study is structured around a three-hour interview that covers a wide range of topics, from financial struggles to relationship difficulties and health care access. For many respondents, the interview offers a rare chance to open up about parts of their life that they don’t typically discuss.

The student researchers, including junior Sophia Helfand, knocked on hundreds of doors and, along the way, helped document some hidden aspects of poverty.

“You can’t tell how much someone is struggling by looking at them or their home,” said Helfand, who interviewed about 25 families this summer. “You might go into a house and discover there are nine people packed inside, barely making enough money to survive.”

In several instances, the students learned that multiple families were living in a home intended for only one family, a doubling-up that sometimes was only revealed well into the interview. For example, Helfand interviewed a woman who initially said she lived only with her husband and two kids.

“We started noticing more and more people coming in and out of the house. Lots of adults were grabbing things from the kitchen. The fridge was in the living room and there was stuff shoved into every corner of the house,” Helfand said. It was only halfway through the interview that the interviewee revealed that her family actually shared their home with another four-person family.

“This doubling-up often arises because one of the families was evicted, couldn’t afford the rent or otherwise lost their home,” said Grusky. “We usually think of the homeless living on the street or in shelters, but often they’re hidden from sight because they’re temporarily doubling up in very crowded homes.”

The many experiences of poverty

Trauma also figured prominently in the stories the students collected, especially sexual, physical or emotional abuse.

“These respondents usually spoke about these events at the very beginning of the interview, as it was a defining moment in their lives,” Helfand said.

Nancy Lopez-Alvarez, a sophomore who conducted interviews near San Bernardino, said she heard a lot about emotional abuse from previous partners, especially among female interviewees. “They would tell us about their past unhealthy relationships, and how they overcame the effects of these relationships on their well-being and self-image.”

The student researchers also documented how poverty takes many forms.

Often people don’t realize that poverty is a very different experience for different people, said senior Eliane Mitchell. The stories that Mitchell collected were starkly different from one another.

One interviewee, who was living with a friend of a friend while her children lived with their grandmother, described her life “as hell.”

But other interviewees reacted to and viewed their challenges very differently. Mitchell recounted one interview with two sisters who live together. “There was so much humor in their lives and so much joy and delight. They are best friends, they have each other’s backs, they have a strong sense of love and belonging,” Mitchell said.

Mitchell – a philosophy major who is interested in going into public interest law – also said the summer gave her an opportunity to connect with the kinds of people she wants to serve as a lawyer.

“The great promise of this study,” said Charles Varner, associate director of the Center on Poverty and Inequality, “is that 5,000 living room conversations – like those our fellows conducted this summer – will provide deep and comprehensive understanding of Americans’ real needs and goals.”

The California Opportunity Study is supported by the James Irvine Foundation. This fall, the team will analyze the data to inform a national study launched by Grusky and fellow principal investigators Kathryn Edin of Princeton University and Peter Cookson of the American Institutes for Research.

Media Contacts

Stephanie Garlow, Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality: