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Geography of Child Poverty in California

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Despite strong economic growth, California continues to struggle with high rates of child poverty. Adverse circumstances faced by young children can have long-term physical, social, and behavioral consequences—negatively affecting their future education and economic well-being. A nuanced understanding of how child poverty varies across the state would help address this challenge. In this report, we examine regional and local differences in the economic circumstances of poor families with young children age 0–5. We find that:

  • One-quarter of young children in California live in poverty. Regionally, child poverty ranges from around 20 percent in the Bay Area, Sacramento area, and Northern region to nearly 30 percent in the Central Coast and Los Angeles County. Statewide, Latino children and children with immigrant, young, or single parents are much more likely to be poor. Interventions that target one or more of these groups hold promise for reaching more young children in poverty.
  • Most poor families with young children have at least one working adult. Parents in higher-cost regions are more likely to be working—not surprising, since these regions tend to offer more work opportunities and higher wages. In the Bay Area, Central Coast, and Orange County, between 79 and 81 percent of young children in poverty have at least one parent working full- or part-time, compared to around 60 percent in the Central Valley and Sierra. Reducing poverty in inland regions requires attention to improving employment readiness and job opportunities.
  • Coping with housing costs while maintaining access to work is difficult in higher-cost regions. Despite higher earnings, poor families with young children in the Bay Area, Orange County, and San Diego County are more likely to be housing burdened, that is, to have housing costs that exceed half of total family resources. They are also more likely than those in inland and northern regions to live in overcrowded housing. Efforts to increase access to affordable housing—through more construction and more housing subsidies—will help.
  • Safety net programs reduce child poverty, with more of an impact in lower-cost regions. Without the safety net, poverty rates among young children would be 24 percentage points higher in the Central Valley and Sierra, compared to 8–9 points higher in the Bay Area and Orange County. Poor families in higher-cost regions are less likely to be eligible for safety net programs, which usually do not account for variation in the cost of living. In the long term, adjusting eligibility and benefits to accommodate differences in cost of living may deserve further consideration, but in the short term, there is room for improvement to broaden the reach of these programs, even without expanding their scope.

We also find that local variation in economic circumstances can overwhelm broader regional differences. For example, in Los Angeles, the poverty rate among young children ranges from 4 percent to 68 percent between southwestern and southcentral parts of the county—the lowest and highest rates in California. This report accompanies an online interactive tool that allows for in-depth exploration of the complexity of child poverty across the state.

Child poverty can be tackled in multiple ways, and policy responses may need to take different forms in various parts of California. Accounting for geographic differences can lead to more tailored approaches for alleviating child poverty and, in turn, help provide economic security for more young children.

Published by: Public Policy Institute of California
Author: Sarah Bohn and Caroline Danielson
Published date: February 2017

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