Skip to content

Nearly 1 in 4 children in California (23%) live in families who struggle to afford the basics, based on the Supplemental Poverty Measure, but conditions for many children of color are far worse. Almost one-third of Latino children (31%) and well over one-quarter of black children (28%) in our state live in poverty — more than twice the share of white children (12%). If this disparity didn’t exist — that is, if the poverty rate for children of color were as low as that for white children — nearly 1 million fewer California children would be impoverished, as we show in our new Data Hit. In fact, the number of kids in poverty in our state would be cut by nearly half.

As striking and troublesome as these racial and ethnic disparities are, what’s even more worrisome is the fact that these poverty rates understate the economic hardship many children, and particularly black children, face throughout their childhoods. This is because the poverty rate simply provides an annual snapshot of the share of children living in poverty. But national research that tracks families over time finds that a much larger share of children experiences economic hardship during their formative years. For example, about 39% of US children live in poverty for at least one year during their childhoods — a substantially higher share than the annual poverty rate suggests. Yet black children fare far worse: a full three-quarters (75%) live in poverty for at least one year, compared to 30% of white children. Moreover, black children are significantly more likely to persistently live in poverty before age 18. Almost 40% of US black children spend at least half of their childhoods in poverty, compared to just 4% of white children.

Racial and Ethnic Disparities in Child Poverty Did Not Happen by Accident

In large part, these disparities in economic hardship during childhood reflect the legacy of blatantly discriminatory policies and practices, together with other forms of discrimination that continue today, that effectively cut many families of color off from opportunity and continue to limit their mobility up the economic ladder. While these policies and practices were primarily directed at black families and individuals, they laid the foundation for segregation among other communities of color. For instance, a wide range of racist housing policies and practices throughout the past century, such as discriminatory city zoning ordinances, redlining, and racially restrictive covenants, fostered racially segregated neighborhoods. On top of this, national transportation policies facilitated “white flight” from cities to suburbs, which further accelerated public and private disinvestment in communities where black families were confined and cut their neighborhoods off from employment opportunities. Although many of these overtly racist policies have been outlawed or discontinued, discriminatory practices that preserve racial segregation continue today. Outright racist policies have been replaced by subtler methods of racial exclusion, such as ostensibly “race-neutral” exclusionary zoning practices and public housing programs that, in effect, continue to confine many families of color to distressed areas where poverty is concentrated and opportunity is limited. Families living in poverty in these areas face what Elizabeth Kneebone and Natalie Holmes have described as the “double burden of being poor in a very poor place,” as these neighborhoods provide limited access to the building blocks of opportunity, such as good schools and jobs.

Growing Up in Poverty Can Have Lasting, Harmful Effects

Why should we be concerned about California’s persistently high level of child poverty? Experiencing economic hardship during childhood not only causes suffering, it also can prevent children from reaching their full potential. National research finds that the longer children spend in poverty, the less likely they are to complete high school, attend and complete college, and be consistently employed in early adulthood, and the more likely they are to live in poverty as adults. For instance, based on the official poverty measure:

  • Just 64% of people who were persistently poor as children — spending at least half of their childhoods in poverty — attained a high school diploma by age 20, compared to 83% of people who experienced poverty for shorter periods and 93% of people who never lived in poverty as children.
  • Just 3% of people who were persistently poor as kids completed college by age 25, compared to 16% of people who lived in poverty for less time and 37% of people who never experienced poverty during childhood.
  • Only 35% of people who were persistently poor before age 18 were consistently employed between ages 25 and 30, compared to 64% of people who experienced shorter spells of poverty and 70% of people who never fell into poverty as kids.
  • Nearly half (45%) of people who lived in poverty for at least half their childhoods were living in poverty at age 35, compared to 8% of people who lived in poverty for less time and just 0.6% of people who never endured poverty as a child.

Cutting Child Poverty Would Help More Children Succeed and Build a Stronger California for Everyone

Research on the long-term effects of experiencing economic hardship early in life suggests that poverty doesn’t just limit children’s prospects, it can limit our state’s future by making it harder for children to fully contribute to our communities and economy when they grow up. Reducing poverty among children, therefore, can be thought of as a critical investment — not just in their individual futures, but in our collective future.

It has been encouraging to see that with greater awareness of the harmful effects of poverty on children, there has been growing interest among California policymakers in tackling this problem. One current effort to cut child poverty came about through a bill signed into law last year — Assembly Bill 1520 (Burke) — which directed the Department of Social Services to convene the Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Task Force. In addition, a wide range of budget proposals are calling for state investments that would reduce economic hardship among children this year. For example, one effort — via a policy bill and a budget request — aims to end deep poverty among children served by CalWORKs by making a long overdue investment in grants, which for over a decade have been insufficient to lift families out of deep poverty. Given the persistently high rate of child poverty in California — particularly among children of color — and the negative consequences that often result from it, these, and the many other anti-poverty efforts moving forward this year, are critical for our state’s children and for all of us.

— Alissa Anderson

Stay in the know.

Join our email list!