High cost of living and low wages drive up child poverty rate in California

December 24, 2017

A recent report by the National Center for Children in Poverty says helping young children who have experienced trauma starts with strengthening the early care and education workforce with training and other support services.

Nearly a quarter of California children 5 years old and younger live in poverty, according to a new report that examines the impact of the cost of living and family income on the state’s youngest residents.

The report, titled “Reducing Child Poverty in California,” found that 31 percent of “poor” families spend more than half of their income on housing, making it difficult to meet basic needs, such as food and health care. Five percent of families in the state live in “deep poverty,” meaning they have less than half the resources they need, states the report, published by Public Policy Institute of California.

The report defines “poor” using the California Poverty Measure, which is based on work income, social service benefits, such as food stamps, and cost of living in various regions of the state. Using that measure, the income level defining poverty is generally higher than that used to set the federal poverty level. For instance, in 2015 the California Poverty Measure defined poverty as income ranging from $20,083 to $39,115 for a family of four with two children, depending on the where the family lived. By comparison, the federal poverty threshold was $24,250 for a family of four for that same year. California has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, the report finds. 

“I think the numbers are shocking for most Californians,” said Sarah Bohn, researcher and co-author of the report. To assess the status of California families, “we look at the unemployment rate and state median income but there is a lot going on under the surface that is not reflected in those broad numbers,” Bohn said.

Bohn said the institute’s research found that among poor families with young children, 78 percent of adults work in low-wage jobs, which is more than twice the rate among all working adults, the report states. Poor families are also more likely to be “housing burdened,” which the report defines as a family that spends more than 50 percent of its income on housing.

The Public Policy Institute of California, which released the report in November, is a nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization. Bohn said the report focuses on children who are newborn to 5 years old because it’s a critical developmental time in a child’s life. It’s also one of the most expensive times for families who are navigating work and child care costs, she said.

The report finds that while the challenges that families face differ across the state, families who live in counties where the cost of living is lower, such as Fresno, Tulare and Kern, are more likely to work in low-wage jobs. Families who live in counties where the cost of living is higher, in urban or coastal areas such as Los Angeles, San Francisco and San Diego, are more likely to pay a large share of their income toward housing, the report states.

Safety net programs, also referred to as social service programs, that assist low-income families play a vital role in reducing childhood poverty, the report states. Cal Fresh, the state’s food stamp program, is one of several examples listed in the report. Without the benefits from large-scale safety net programs “an additional 14 percent of young children in California would be poor,” the report states.

But while social service programs are beneficial, they can also fail to reach families with more moderate incomes who work full-time and make just a little over what’s required to qualify for social services. The report states that many of those families still struggle to meet their basic needs despite full-time employment. Some federal programs use a single measure to determine poverty without “acknowledging that most Californians face much higher housing costs,” it states.

Still, the report acknowledges several steps the state has taken to address the high cost of living and the pervasiveness of low-wage jobs for working families, which include increasing the minimum wage to $15 by 2022. Researchers also outline solutions to reduce child poverty, such as increasing tax credits for families.

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