By Ted Lempert
If California were a country, its economy would be the fifth-largest in the world. Yet as of March 2021, 14% of California households with children did not have enough to eat, the sixth-worst rank among the 50 states. The figure is even higher for Black (28%) and Latino (22%) households, jeopardizing the potential for these children to contribute in the future to California’s growing economy.
This week, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, our partner in promoting child well-being in California, released the 2021 KIDS COUNT® Data Book, a 50-state report of recent household data analyzing how families have fared between the Great Recession and the COVID-19 crisis The report shows that California kids were among those hardest-hit by the pandemic, with California ranking among the bottom 20 states for most of the six pandemic-period indicators in the Data Book.
California, we must do better. Poverty is not inevitable. It is the result of policy choices. Coming out of the catastrophic effects of the pandemic, the choices we make at this moment in history can alter the future trajectory of the most vulnerable children in our state. And with one-seventh of the nation’s children, California’s policy decisions have an outsized impact on the entire country.
The annual KIDS COUNT data and rankings represent the most recent information available but do not capture the impact of the past year:
• 43rd in economic well-being: In 2019, 16% of the state’s children lived in households with income below the poverty line. If the poverty line were adjusted to account for the high cost of living in California, the figure would be much worse. We know that the pandemic brought on dire economic circumstances for many Californian families, some of whom were already living in poverty and others who found themselves struggling in new ways.
• 36th in education: In 2019, 50% of the state’s 3- and 4-year-olds were not in an early education program. Early education is crucial for setting kids up for success in school and life, and for providing support for parents that are working or going to school.
• 11th in affordable health care: While California has been a leader in expanding coverage to all kids, there is a concerning uptick in the number of uninsured children in California – from 2018 to 2019, 35,000 kids lost health insurance, for a total of 335,000 kids without coverage. State leaders must tailor community outreach to take into account the state’s racial and ethnic diversity, and also ensure that health coverage translates to appropriate access to care.
• 36th in family and community context: In 2019, California ranked at the very bottom for children in families where the household head lacked a high school diploma. Further, there are large racial and ethnic disparities: 29% of Latino, 10% of Black and 17% of American Indian household heads did not have a high school diploma, compared to 5% of white household heads.
California, we must do better. In partnership with the Casey Foundation, we urge the state government to expand state tax credits that would benefit parents and children. California must also strengthen its public schools and pathways to postsecondary education and training; 48% of the state’s households with children had at least one member who reduced or canceled postsecondary plans due to the pandemic.
The Casey Foundation’s main national recommendation to alleviate the devastating pandemic fallout is that Congress and President Biden make permanent this year’s expansion of the Child Tax Credit, which includes cash payments to 30 million of the nation’s families with children beginning in July.
This proactive support is estimated to lift almost half the nation’s poor children above the poverty line, including 500,000 kids in California. More than 7.8 million children in our state will benefit from this transformational policy improvement.
The United States and California have the opportunity right now to make choices and priorities that can set a global standard for child well-being in a post-pandemic world. Let’s enact policies in our state worthy of its economic ranking in the world and show that California is a leader not only for the most powerful among us, but in supporting the most vulnerable of us.
Ted Lempert is President of Children Now, a non-partisan, whole-child research, policy development and advocacy organization dedicated to promoting children’s well-being in California.