Poverty in a land of plenty

Nearly one in every four California kids lives in poverty – a familiar but still-stunning statistic in a land as plentiful as ours.

You would think this would be the top focus of the state’s policymakers – on the left and the right. Either by increasing public assistance, or increasing economic opportunity, or both, California must do something to lift the next generation out of this condition or risk supporting a permanent underclass for decades to come.

That’s why a recent report card on the wellbeing of children from kidscount.org, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, is worth reviewing.

California, a state with an income per person ranked 15th highest among the states, finished 41st on the foundation’s broad-based measure of the condition of America’s children.

On 16 measures of economics, education, health and family and community characteristics, California kids rank near the bottom nationally.

To be fair, California does tend to do worse on deeply rooted systemic measures like income and poverty, and slightly less worse on things that are more easily affected by state policy, such as health care and education. So there is hope. But the overall picture is still pretty bleak.

The worst news for California came in the report card’s measures of economic well-being. Taking these measures together, California ranked 46th among the states.

Twenty-three percent of California children live in poverty – defined in 2011 as an income of less than $22,800 for a family of two adults and two children.

Thirty-sex percent of California kids lived in a family where no parent had full-time, year-round employment. That’s more than one in three children in state, or 3.3 million kids.

Another measure of hardship is how much a family spends on housing. Families that spend more than a third of their pre-tax income on housing tend to have a difficult time meeting other basic needs. In California, more than half our kids live in families that spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Given our high housing prices, it might not come as a surprise that this figure was the worst in the nation in 2011.

The number of disconnected youth – kids between 16 and 19 who are neither in school nor working – is another indicator of well-being. These kids tend to be at risk for criminal behavior and other problems as they enter adulthood. In California, 9 percent of our youth are in this category.

Finally, 25 percent of California children live in families where the head of the household does not have a high school diploma. This does not spell automatic doom, especially in immigrant families where the parents came here without an education but want a better life for their kids. But the number is much higher than the national average of 15 percent and bears watching.

The glimmer of good news is that California has made some progress in a few areas where the state has put a high priority on kids. Education funding has been cut here, but public policy has put a focus on teaching kids to read and do math and stay in school. Our numbers are still not great, but at least California children are not doing significantly worse than the rest of the nation on those measures.

On a couple of benchmarks, California is actually doing better than the other states. We have fewer teen births than the national average, and fewer low-birthweight babies. This is likely the result of the state’s sex education programs and the accessibility of birth control and pre-natal care.

And despite all of our problems, California does relatively well on the ultimate measure of child health – the number of child and teen deaths per 100,000. In 2010, we had 21 deaths per 100,000 children and teens. That was quite a bit lower than the national average of 26, and a big improvement from the 28 deaths per 100,000 in 2005.

But while we might be keeping our kids alive in greater numbers, their quality of life, and their futures, remain in doubt. The bottom line is that our kids are in trouble, and they hold the future of our state in their hands. Too many of them are living in poverty and in families facing severe economic hardship.

We’ve made some progress, but not nearly enough. We still have a very long way to go.

Daniel Weintraub has covered public policy in California for 25 years. He is editor of the California Health Report at www.calhealthreport.org

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