Joblessness pushed another 2.6 million people into poverty last year as 15.1 percent of Americans and 16.3 percent of Californians were living under the poverty line -- the highest rate since 1993, according to 2010 U.S. census statistics released Tuesday.
"I never thought it was going to be this bad," said Celina Lopez, a single mother of two young children who has moved in with her grandmother in El Sobrante. "My situation is pretty scary, in terms of housing, kids and being able to provide for them. I didn't think it would be this hard to find a job."
The national poverty rate rose from 14.3 percent in 2009, and it increased most dramatically for children and the youngest working-age adults, those between 18 and 24.
The number of people who did not work at all last year was "the single most important factor" causing the poverty spike, said Trudi Renwick, chief of the Census Bureau's poverty statistics branch.
"It's just a wretched time to be starting out in your career," said Kristen Lewis, co-director of the nonprofit American Human Development Project. "Unfortunately, it's been tremendously difficult for people trying to get their first job."
About 46.2 million people were in poverty in 2010, the highest number since the government began tracking poverty in 1959. For a family of four with two children, poverty means making less than $22,113 a year. The U.S. poverty threshold is $11,344 for a single adult younger than 65, and advocates have long pointed out that an income at that level amounts to even less for residents of the Bay Area, with its high cost of living.
The grim statistics come as President Barack Obama battles Republicans over the effectiveness of attempts to stimulate the economy and a new jobs bill he proposed last week.
Real median income dropped by 2.3 percent to $49,445. The largest income decline was for households with young people between the ages of 15 and 24, while the second highest decline was for households with people in the 45-to-54 age group.
Lopez, 27, is one of many working-age adults who found refuge in an elder relative's home after struggling to find a job. The poverty rate would probably be much worse had millions of American families not doubled up over the course of the 18-month recession that began in December 2007, Renwick said.
Of people between ages 25 and 34 who are living with their parents, just over 8 percent live in a poor household, Renwick said, but if they depended on their own income and lived on their own, close to half of those 25- to 34-year-olds would be classified as poor. Nearly 41 percent of all female-headed households are poor.
Lopez said she and her children, 6 and 4, are "pretty much homeless," because her grandmother's home is in foreclosure and they have been moving from place to place. She is cleaning houses and studying at Diablo Valley College in hopes of improving her likelihood of getting a full-time job. She hasn't had one in more than a year.
Her best year economically was 2008, "when I was working, I was doing really good. I had my own place. Everything was really stable," she said.
Concord cosmetologist Monica Kicki, also a mother of two, said her income today is half what she made two years ago. She had hoped to send her son to private school after his neighborhood public school closed this year. He was disappointed to learn she couldn't afford it.
The 36-year-old mother had a steady job at Macy's until the spring and has been working since she was a teenager.
"When I go on Craigslist, I see all these jobs, but when you apply, they want so much from you but pay very little," Kicki said. "They want you to have all this schooling, all this experience."
She has considered going back to school but is not sure it is worth the cost.
Income from unemployment and Social Security benefits counts toward total personal income in the census statistics, but not food stamps, tax credits and other government help. Although all generations experienced a decline in median income, seniors had the lowest poverty rate increase, in part because Social Security recipients received cost-of-living increases of 2.3 percent in 2007 and 5.8 percent in 2008.
"Elderly are the most protected from falling into deep poverty in this country," said Lewis, who proposes investments in education and jobs creation that could help get Californians out of poverty. It is a social crisis as much as a monetary crisis, said Lewis, because "jobs are about more than just a paycheck. They matter for your physical and mental health, your family's stability."
"Poverty feels intractable to a lot of people, but when we as a country put our mind to it and try to do something about poverty, we really make headway," Lewis said.
The poverty rate grew for all racial groups except for Asian-Americans and was highest for African-Americans and Latinos, at about 27 percent.
The new director of the Alameda County Social Services Agency said more people of all walks of life have come to her office for cash assistance, food stamps, paid child care and guidance in finding jobs. Lori Jones said she wants to break down the "stigma around social services" that has prevented many families on the edge from seeking help.
"There are more people in need of temporary assistance, a hand up," Jones said.