California has long been ground zero for cultural, political and societal trailblazing. But being first in one category has lawmakers and humanitarians alike aghast. Although the rate dropped this year, the Golden State still ranks No. 1 in the category of child poverty.
There are more than 2 million children who live under or at the poverty level in California, according to child advocacy organization the Children’s Defense Fund — California.
An average of 22.8 percent — or 2 million — of California’s children lived below the poverty threshold in 2013-15; that figure is $30,000 a year for a family of four, according to a number released earlier this year. The number of children in poverty is down from 24.4 percent in 2011-13.
Last month, a state task force recommended that lawmakers increase by as much as $1.6 million spending on child care, food assistance and other social services for children living in impoverished circumstances.
Assemblywoman Autumn Burke (D-Marina del Rey) sponsored legislation last year to address the epidemic of child poverty, dubbing it a “call to action.”
Assembly Bill 1520, which faced a six-month uphill battle and had key provisions removed before it passed the Legislature, was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown on Oct. 2, 2015.
AB 1520 created the Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Taskforce, which will submit reports to the Legislature and the Governor’s Office recommending future strategies “to achieve the reduction of deep poverty among children and reduce the overall poverty rate in the state.”
Projecting child poverty rates into the 2039-40 fiscal year and establishing benchmarks toward reducing child poverty by 50 percent were among the sections of the initial legislation that were stricken before it arrived on Brown’s desk. Those provisions would have been likely to impact allocation of fiscal resources and complicate future state budget negotiations.
“This is like a first stab at the apple. I think that we wanted to work to make sure that we had a functional bill that could be useful to everyone,” explained Burke, the daughter of former congresswoman and Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Braithwaite Burke.
The task force report states the reasons for California coming in first in childhood impoverishment are high living costs, income inequality and the impact of institutional and economic racism. Latino and African-American children have higher rates of poverty than Asians and whites: 26.1 percent, 18.9 percent, 17.6 percent and 13.5 percent, respectively.
Education is a contributing factor in whether a child will live in poverty: Nearly five of 10 high school dropouts were living in underprivileged households in 2016.
“I know that’s it easy to be overwhelmed by this problem. This task force report shows that right now we have an opportunity to make a change and we can change the directions of hundreds of thousands of children’s lives and ultimately the future of California,” Burke said on a crisp morning at a Dec. 3 press conference in Sacramento on the steps of the Capitol, where she was flanked by supporters and members of the task force.
The assemblywoman said she plans to introduce additional legislation next year to supplement AB 1520 that will include targeted child tax credits and one that states every child will have “the fundamental right to clean and safe shelter.”
Burke was stunned and outraged by the number when she discussed her legislation. “It is devastating and embarrassing to have the fifth largest economy in the world and yet so many children are in poverty,” Burke said, an edge in her voice. “This is unacceptable, and it offends me to my core.”
One statistic that stands out is the number of “working poor” among the number of people living in poverty. In 2016, among families that include at least one working-age adult (under 65 years old), most included at least one person who was working. Over half of these families had full-time jobs (58 percent) and the rest worked part-time or full-time for part of the year (42 percent), according to the task force’s findings.
According to the Public Policy Institute of California, the rate of hardship would be even higher if not for California’s social safety net. Without safety net resources, 35.3 percent of children (about 3.2 million) would live in poverty.