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We Can't Abandon the Next Generation

Cross-posted with author permission from the Sacramento Bee »

As the economy faltered over the past several years, the number of people living in poverty in California reached record levels. By the official count, more Californians are living in poverty – 6.3 million – than at any point since the U.S. census started tracking state poverty. And a new poverty measure puts the number of Californians in poverty at 8.7 million, giving our state the dubious distinction of having the highest poverty rate in the country.

But on closer inspection, the numbers are even worse than they appear: California's children are by far the most numerous victims of increased poverty across the state. One in five children in California lives in poverty; nearly half live either in poverty or perilously close to it. In an alarming twist, more than twice as many California children live in poverty as seniors – a fact that should give grandparents across the state pause.

It's important to remember that these numbers on spreadsheets represent actual people. It's even more important to remember that these people – our children – will determine the future prosperity of our state. This is no trivial matter in a state with the world's ninth-largest economy. How we choose to address – or not address – childhood poverty in California will have an outsized impact on our national and global economic leadership.

There are steps we can take to address the problem of childhood poverty; we've done it for seniors. While 21 percent of California's kids are in poverty, the figure is less than half that for seniors, at 8.5 percent.

According to a new report by The Center for the Next Generation, "Prosperity Threatened: Perspectives on Childhood Poverty in California," the disparity between childhood poverty and senior poverty runs deep across California. In Fresno County, 35 percent of children live in poverty, compared with less than 12 percent of seniors. In Sacramento County, 24 percent of children are living in poverty compared with 8 percent of seniors; in Los Angeles County, 24 percent of kids vs. 12 percent of seniors.

When looking at figures that span the great recession, it is clear that poverty rates generally grew for seniors and children in California. Yet poverty among children grew at rates three times greater than that experienced by the elderly. In 16 counties between 2006 and 2011, seniors saw an average decline in poverty of 12 percent, even after accounting for the recession.

This isn't to suggest that we want to solve the problem of children's poverty by raising senior poverty. Quite the contrary – the question we should be asking is: What can we learn from our success in keeping seniors out of poverty, and how can we apply these lessons to children?

It is no surprise that this disparity in senior and childhood poverty exists. We have made a national commitment to provide income and health security for seniors through Social Security and Medicare. For children, on the other hand, we have only a combined federal-state commitment to health insurance, but children have no social compact to protect them against the whims of the economy that lead to severe declines in their family incomes. And the one sure way of alleviating the effects of poverty – funding education – is left primarily to states and localities, and is continually under threat. In essence, we've built a social safety net for seniors, but left a gaping hole for our kids to fall through.

Overall, the counties that experience the highest rates of childhood poverty have the highest unemployment rates, the highest percentage of adults without health insurance, the highest percentage of single-parent households, the lowest median incomes and the lowest percentage of adults holding college degrees. These underlying problems that result in childhood poverty show limited signs of subsiding – unemployment and underemployment among parents persist, with only slow signs of recovery; single-parent households – which statistically are the most economically precarious families – are dramatically increasing, with no plans in place to ensure greater economic stability for such families.

Why should we care?

Being born into a family with limited parental income is the single best predictor of future earnings and economic success as an adult. According to the Economic Mobility Project of the Pew Charitable Trust, more than two-thirds of children who are born into poverty remain at, or just above, the poverty line as adults, with severe consequences for their economic mobility and ability to lead productive, economically stable lives.

Ironically, as childhood poverty increases, our seniors are also put at greater risk: If today's children are mired in poverty into adulthood, they simply will not be able to fund the programs that keep the elderly out of poverty – Social Security and Medicare.

And yet, alarm bells are not ringing in Sacramento. It's as if childhood poverty has become an accepted fact in our state, rather than a problem that threatens our future prosperity. Childhood poverty deserves immediate and focused attention.

Despite this disturbing silence, there are signs that when called to act, Californians answer, solving hard social problems through public, private and personal collaboration and innovation.

Voters, by passing Proposition 30, made a commitment to raise taxes to keep public schools afloat. They also voted for Proposition 39, which will close a corporate tax loophole that could provide hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for school improvements, particularly to disadvantaged schools.

In the private sector, major hotels and the hotel workers union in San Francisco have banded together for years to provide child-care benefits so that their hotel workers, who are making limited wages, can afford quality child care while they work. And, on the personal front, the Family Independence Initiative in Oakland, an innovative nonprofit organization, is getting national attention for its success in helping low-income families set priorities, goals and strategies to build assets to help their children.

We desperately need more innovations like these, and we desperately need immediate action. The recipe to ameliorate the devastating impacts of childhood poverty is well-known: greater income stability for families and a good education for children. Right now, California is doing too little on both counts.

Our leaders – in government, in the private sector, and in our families and communities – can start by recognizing that childhood poverty is just as important to our state's economic growth as creating new jobs, and they can come together with a real action plan to lessen the severe impact of poverty on children's lives.

This plan should start with providing more school funding to the areas of our state with the highest concentrations of poverty. And the plan should ensure that as we expand access to health care in California, we develop an easy way for parents to apply at the same time for other essential benefits from child-care assistance to food stamps to paid family leave so that children can benefit from the family income security provided by all of these programs.

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