A new way of measuring poverty reveals California has by far the biggest share of people in economic despair, eclipsing states such as Mississippi and Louisiana, when housing and other costs are factored.

The alternative yardstick, known as the supplemental poverty measure, found nearly 2.8 million more people are struggling across the country than the traditional benchmark shows.

That makes a big difference in California, where the broader measure counts more than 8.9 million people living in poverty between 2010 and 2012 -- a report released Wednesday by the U.S. Census Bureau shows -- far higher than the 6.2 million living in poverty tallied the official way.

"Anyone who has moved to California from somewhere else knows the dramatic increase of the cost of living," said Ann Stevens, director for the Center for Poverty Research at UC Davis. "It's not more surprising that California looks more impoverished. It is really driven by the cost of housing. California is a very expensive place to live."

Using the alternative measure, California had the highest poverty in the country between 2010 and 2012 -- 23.8 percent -- followed by the District of Columbia and Nevada. The official measure ranked Louisiana, Mississippi and New Mexico at the top during that period.

In rural parts of North Dakota, Kentucky and West Virginia, the poverty level is around $18,000 for a family of four without a mortgage. In the San Jose, San Francisco and Oakland metropolitan areas, the Census Bureau says, it's $35,500 for a family of four with a mortgage.

That $35,500 "may look pretty good to someone in a rural area," Stevens said. "I don't think too many people in San Francisco would think that."

The new measure, introduced two years ago by the Obama administration, is aimed at providing a fuller picture of poverty but does not replace the official government numbers. It generally is considered more reliable by social scientists.

The new numbers show that a lot of people are "falling through the cracks," said Allison Pratt, the Alameda County Community Food Bank's director of policy and services. They don't qualify for assistance but can't make ends meet living in one of the country's most expensive regions.

Even at a $35,500 income, "people still need help putting food on the table," Pratt said. "They earn a little too much to qualify for help but not enough to pay the bills."

And nonprofits like food banks, charged with helping families make up the difference, are still dealing with huge demand as a lingering effect of the recession, Pratt said.

"It's just crazy out here in the Bay Area. We have known for a long time that the (standard poverty measure) is just not accurate here," Pratt said.

The alternative measure found that 16 percent of Americans, nearly 50 million, are living in poverty, versus the 15.1 percent, or roughly 47 million officially counted.

In addition to the cost of housing, the Census' alternative poverty measure also takes into account tax credits and other government benefits. It also counts necessary expenses such as child care and out-of-pocket medical costs.

The alternative measure shows steeper poverty among immigrants and the elderly than officially measured. The poverty rate among Asian-Americans, officially measured at 11.8 percent, jumps to 16.7 percent using the alternative measure.

Administration officials have declined to say whether the new measure eventually could replace the official poverty formula, which is used to allocate federal dollars to states and localities and to determine eligibility for safety-net programs such as Medicaid.

Congress would have to agree to adopt the new measure, which generally would result in a higher poverty rate from year to year and thus higher government payouts for aid programs.

By any measure, poverty has stagnated. Earlier this year, the Census Bureau reported that the official poverty rate was virtually the same in 2011 and 2012. The alternative also shows little change in those years, a reflection of continued hardship in the wake of the recession.

"Unemployment is still huge. We've cut housing. We've cut Head Start. We've cut nutrition programs," said Ron Haskins, co-director of the Brookings Center on Children and Families. "Now it's food stamps. ... That'll show up in these numbers next year."

Staff Writer Thomas Peele, the Los Angeles Times and the Associated Press contributed to this report.