Senate Select Committee Hears Strategies To End Child Poverty in California

Ending poverty must be a “sustained and broad-based effort,” according to testimony this week at a state Senate hearing examining child poverty in California.

The goal of the Senate Select Committee on Women and Inequality is to develop a “tangible, measurable plan to reduce if not end poverty for California’s children,” said state Sen. Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles), select committee chair.

Last year, the select committee held a series of hearings and discussions on solutions to end disparities and reduce poverty. Now the select committee is hearing policy recommendations from stakeholders.

Nearly one in four children in California — a total of more than two million children — live in poverty, according to state data. Child poverty rates have risen steadily since reaching a two-decade low in 2001, according to the Public Policy Institute of California.

Alissa Anderson, senior policy analyst at the California Budget and Policy Center, told the select committee ending poverty will require a “sustained and broad-based effort.”

That effort should “prevent obstacles to moving up the ladder,” Anderson said, including providing affordable housing and childcare, unemployment benefits and living wages.

“Boosting wages and incomes must be central to any effort to reduce poverty because most people in poverty have jobs,” Anderson said.

Anderson and other advocates pointed to three areas in which policy changes could help:

  • Raising the minimum wage further and tying it to inflation;
  • Creating a state earned income tax credit; and
  • Increasing access to quality, affordable childcare.

The minimum wage in California is $9 per hour and will rise to $10 per hour on Jan. 1, 2016.

“California can invest in proven policies to reduce poverty,” said Michele Stillwell-Parvensky, senior policy and government affairs manager at the Children’s Defense Fund in California.

Increasing CalFresh participation, for instance, can help reduce poverty. California has one of the lowest food stamps participation rates among states, Stillwell-Parvensky said.

Child poverty costs California $66 billion per year in lost productivity, health, crime and other factors, she said. “Child poverty is a moral and economic crisis in our state,” Stillwell-Parvensky said.

CalWORKS, the state’s welfare program, can create barriers to getting people out of poverty, some experts said in testimony. “We need a better path out of low-wage, stagnant jobs,” said Antoinette Dozier, senior attorney at the Western Center on Law and Poverty. She added that CalWORKS participants have faced loss of benefits when they reach for higher wage jobs and education.

State Sen. Carol Liu (D-La Cañada Flintridge) expressed frustration at the situation.  

“We have heard this time and time again. What can we do, I mean beyond money?” Liu said. “The problem is we have a growing number of poor people. There are 269,000 homeless kids in California. How did we get here?”

Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson (D-Santa Barbara) suggested tying pay of CalWORKS employees to incentives for beneficiary job placement. “I think that just changes the whole way we attack the problem,” Jackson said.

Expanding subsidized childcare would help three million parents escape poverty, said Donna Sneeringer, director of governmental relations for the Childcare Resource Center, which serves Los Angeles and San Bernardino Counties, helping families connect with affordable childcare.

The average cost of childcare for a single infant is half of a $19,000 annual salary, Sneeringer said. Some 300,000 children are on the eligibility wait list for subsidized childcare statewide. Less than 18% of eligible children up to age five are participating in the program.

Meanwhile, childcare providers participating in the state childcare program are severely underpaid, advocates said. Some unlicensed childcare providers are paid only about $2 per hour because their wages are tied to the state budget, not the minimum wage, Sneeringer said.

“I am really astonished,” said Jackson.

California lost one-third of its childcare and development system during the recession because of more than $1 billion in cuts to the state budget, advocates said.

“I think the challenge in California is we have peaks and valleys,” Mitchell said. “When times are tough, these are the first programs to be cut.”

In March, the California Legislative Women’s Caucus recommended to the governor that he invest no less than $600 million in the state’s childcare system to raise provider rates and increase available slots.

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