Study: Social Safety Net Vital for Health of California Children in Poverty

Nearly half the children in California are living near or below the poverty line, and the social safety net is vital to their health and well-being, according to a recent report by the Public Policy Institute of California.

The state’s social safety-net services help keep poor kids — especially young children — healthy, according to the report.

“Research suggests that poverty in the first few years of life may undermine brain development, adversely affect overall health status, and lead to both diminished success in early elementary school grades and lower chances of ever completing high school,” report authors wrote.

The social safety net includes:

  • CalFresh, the state’s food stamps program;
  • CalWORKs, the state’s welfare program;
  • Free and reduced-price school lunch;
  • Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants and Children, or WIC; and
  • Other programs.

Using the California Poverty Measure — which includes family earnings, safety-net resources and adjustments for housing and other costs — PPIC found that 25% of children in California live in poverty, while an additional 26% live near the poverty line. The report estimates that nearly 1.3 million additional children in the state would be living in poverty if their families did not use social safety-net services, which would raise the state’s childhood poverty rate to nearly 40%.

The report shows poverty rates are similar across all childhood age groups:

  • 26% among those ages five and under;
  • 25% among children ages six to 12; and
  • 24% among children ages 13 to 17.

Los Angeles County has nearly double the number of children living in poverty of any other region in the state, with 730,000 children in poverty. The rate of childhood poverty in Los Angeles County ranges from 28% to 32%, depending on age. The next-highest numbers of children living in poverty were in the San Francisco Bay Area with about 360,000 and the Inland Empire region with 330,000.

In contrast, Northern California has the lowest number of children living in poverty, with 40,000, according to the report. The rate of childhood poverty ranged from 15% to 20% across Northern California. However, the report noted that the childhood poverty rate would more than double in the region without the use of the social safety net.

For a family of two adults and two children, the California Poverty Measure estimated the 2011 poverty threshold to be as low as $19,500 and as high as $37,400, depending on where the family lived and whether the family residence was rented or owned. Since most of the state’s residents live in high-cost counties, and 89 % of Californians live in rented or mortgaged housing, poverty thresholds for a family of four for the majority of the state’s residents ranged from $29,500 to $37,400. By comparison, the official poverty threshold is $22,811 for a family of four in any California county.

How Poverty Plays a Role in Health

“Child poverty can have an extremely detrimental effect on health during childhood and into adulthood,” said Michele Stillwell-Parvensky, senior policy and communications associate at the Children’s Defense Fund-California. “Children living in poverty have worse health outcomes on a number of measures, starting from birth,” including “higher risk for infant mortality or low birthweight, developmental delays, asthma, mental health challenges, obesity, and poor nutrition.”

Stillwell-Parvensky added, “Poor children are also less likely to have regular access to needed health care.”

Stillwell-Parvensky said the social safety net is key in promoting health development among children living in poverty. “First, without the social safety net, millions more children in California and across the nation would be poor, and be at risk for worse health outcomes as a result. Second, social safety-net programs mitigate the negative effects of child poverty on health and well-being.”

She noted that “proper nutrition is essential to child health, and CalFresh and the free and reduced-price school meals program are essential in reducing food insecurity and hunger among children.”

However, the report noted some policies that address childhood poverty are only beneficial to specific age groups. For instance, WIC provides assistance for young children, while the free and reduced-price school meal program typically helps children in elementary, middle or high school.

Recent Cuts Leave Social Safety Net ‘Tattered’

State funding for social services fell from 6.2% in 2007-2008 to 4.7% in 2013-2014, according to a January PPIC report. Specifically, spending on the Department of Social Services — which oversees CalFresh and CalWORKS — fell by 5% during the economic recession.

“California’s social safety net for children and families is tattered after years of devastating cuts to California’s health and human services programs during the recession,” Stillwell-Parvensky said. “We need a major reinvestment in social safety-net programs to restore past cuts and fully meet the needs of California’s poor children.”

She noted, “The social safety net is particularly failing our youngest children — children under age six are the poorest age group, and we know that poverty early in a child’s life is especially harmful because the early years are such a crucial developmental time.”

According to the recent PPIC report, California lawmakers now “are renewing their focus on safety net and other programs that include reducing the number of children in poverty as one of their goals.”

‘Enduring Policy Complexities’

Report authors Sarah Bohn and Caroline Danielson noted that state and federal programs sometimes create “enduring policy complexities. Programs will continue to have multiple aims that may conflict with each other in terms of poverty reduction.”

They give three examples:

  • Families are more likely to make use of a non-restrictive food assistance program, but policymakers might seek to encourage healthy eating by excluding certain types of purchases from those types of programs. Doing so might undercut participation;
  • Programs designed to bolster families’ efforts to achieve self-sufficiency in the long run — by, for example, incentivizing work and education (and penalizing non-compliance) — might also be less likely to reduce poverty in the short term; and
  • California’s regional cost of living variation raises thorny questions about whether uniformly scaled safety-net benefits are equitable.

The authors concluded:

“Finally, it is important to consider various ways of assessing progress, including not just reduced poverty rates but also movement up the income ladder and reductions in the amount of time children spend in poverty.”

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