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California’s Weak Spot: Child Poverty

Updated: Jan 24, 2022

Art by Femi Henry-Chia

California boasts a strong economy. With an average real GDP of $2.9 trillion and a firm grasp on 15% of the United States’s economy, it could very well seem that our Golden State has everything in control. However, like all situations, it’s not the whole picture. California still struggles to manage its high rates of child poverty. And here in Los Angeles, about 80% of students in the Los Angeles School District live at or below the poverty line.

What is the Poverty Line?

The poverty line is an annually updated threshold controlled by the Census Bureau mainly used for statistical purposes. Also known as “poverty thresholds” or the “poverty limit”, poverty lines are the original version of the federal poverty measure. According to the Census Bureau, it is the “minimum level of resources that are adequate to meet basic needs.” Currently, in the United States, the poverty threshold for a family of four is $26,500.

Compared to the rest of the United States, California’s poverty percentage is relatively better than most states. According to the California Department of Industrial Relations, minimum wage must be increased yearly, a statement effective since January 1, 2017. During the year 2017, the minimum wage was $10 per hour for employers with 25 employees or less and $10.50 for employers with 26 employees or more. Currently, the minimum wage for employers with 25 employees or less is $12 per hour and for employers with 26 employees or more, $14, a stark difference from the current $7.25 federal minimum wage. By 2023, California aims to reach a $15 per hour minimum wage.

Although California’s minimum wage is higher than the national minimum wage, that should be no reason for avoiding the dilemma. Furthermore, California, especially Los Angeles, is notorious for its absurd housing costs and the state’s poverty statistics still contain alarming numbers.

Poverty and School Life

Photograph by Thomas Park

Poverty in LAUSD has been a problem the district has been trying to fix for years. Our current situation of living through a pandemic and the recent year-and-a-half of online learning has done nothing to help. Nonetheless, LAUSD has tried its best to help these students with programs like Grab & Go Food Centers, free laptops, and internet hot spots. But child poverty is a predicament difficult to settle. Creating wider awareness, providing adequate resources, and making executive policy improvements are a few things that we need to achieve to adequately help students and their families.

School readiness is a reflection of the student’s environment. An environment ridden with worries about rent, food, and a place to live is detrimental to the academic and social success of a child, or in Eagle Rock’s case, adolescents. According to the Pediatrics and Child Health article The impact of poverty on educational outcomes for children, a child's home life, in particular, has a large impact on school readiness. Here at Eagle Rock Jr. Sr. High School, 54% or over 1,000 of our students are “low-income,” providing our school with Title 1 Funding- the funding that provides financial assistance to local educational agencies and schools with high numbers or percentages of students from “low-income” families. According to the U.S. Department of Education, these funds are used to “ensure that all children meet challenging state academic standards.”

Mrs. Busch, the Pupil Service and Attendance Counselor at ERHS described to me how important attendance is for school, as well as a signal of who to check upon. “I work with students that have barriers or [are] having attendance issues,” Mrs. Busch says, “because it’s usually a sign of something else happening. It could be depression, or poverty, so many different things.” This is Mrs. Busch’s first full-time year at Eagle Rock, as she’s switched between different schools in the years previous, “it makes a huge difference,” she tells me.

Mrs. Busch, Pupil Service and Attendance Counselor at ERHS. Photograph by Ranya Theba

Mrs. Busch describes herself as the “person to talk to” whenever there is something that keeps you from getting to school. During online learning, she experienced more difficulty contacting students. She even mentioned to me that, “sometimes I’d call students, and they’re on the bus on their way to work [to support their families].” Although a rare occurrence, job loss has resulted in children having to help support their families by getting jobs themselves; school becoming insignificant in light of a bigger problem.

Food Insecurity

As mentioned before, LAUSD set up the widely publicized Grab & Go Food Centers to provide meals to students who rely on it for their daily nutrition. According to a February 2021 press release from LAUSD, they provided a staggering 100 million meals to students and families since March of 2020. And during online learning, it was a necessary relief; “Food insecurity is a big issue, especially when people are losing housing and jobs,” Mrs. Busch said. This food insecurity, or the measure of the sufficient availability of affordable and nutritious food and the individual’s ability to access it, is influenced by relevant factors like income and employment. Mrs. Busch continues by saying, “Usually during the regular school year, we are feeding students; their main calories are coming from us [school].”

Grab & Go Food Center at ERHS. Image source: Eagle Rock High School Facebook

Nutrition is necessary for positive development and cognitive growth. Coming to school with an empty stomach will do nothing to improve school performance.

Mental Health

Sadly, many people forget about the other just-important piece of their health—mental health. And with Covid, mental health has been noticeably affected. “There are feelings we’ve been having before Covid, but now with Covid, they’ve been magnified,” says Eagle Rock’s Psychiatric Social Worker Mrs. Roman. Mrs. Roman, the perfect person to talk to if you “need help explaining and expressing your feelings” works closely with many of our students, along with students that fall within this “poverty line”. Except she doesn’t like to think of students this way. Every student in her eyes is the same; placing a student in a group labeled “poverty” can be undermining.

Mrs. Roman, Psychiatric Social Worker at ERHS. Photograph by Ranya Theba

“Magnified feelings” is a term Mrs. Roman references often; a phrase that perfectly describes how our emotions were even more scrambled through online learning and overall, the pandemic. These “magnified feelings” are especially relevant in students who have to deal with job losses and other problems at home. Mrs. Busch further emphasizes that mental health can take a dip when you’re in a position like being in poverty “because there is a lot of stress when you’re in poverty and you’re struggling with so many factors.”

Mental health however is, unfortunately, often left in the dark. Luckily, in the past couple of years, LAUSD has been devoting money specifically to fund mental health counselors like Mrs. Roman. This year, the Los Angeles Unified School District has budgeted $151 million to triple the number of mental health counselors working with students at schools. “Mental health and physical health should be looked at as one,” Mrs. Roman tells me passionately, “and we should treat mental health and work with mental health just as we work with physical health.”

If you’d ever like to contact Mrs. Roman or Mrs. Busch, visit the attendance office and you’ll find two intelligent, driven, and kind women helping students in their adjacent offices.

Taking Action

Like LAUSD, California hasn’t turned a blind eye to the substantial hurdle child poverty is. At the end of 2018, California’s Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Task Force issued the End Child Poverty Plan. The End Child Poverty Plan in California, or ECPCA, consists of comprehensive recommendations “meant to be implemented together”. The plan intends to be a driving force in “cutting overall child poverty in half” and ending “deep child poverty”, or living a household with a total cash income below 50% of its poverty threshold.

Image from End Child Poverty in California

The ECPCA has resulted in monumental changes. According to the organization, in 2019 “California legislators approved $4.82 billion in new investments supporting the End Child Poverty Plan, including a double California Earned Income Tax Credit, the Young Child Tax Credit, expanded health care, and new subsidized child care slots.” ECPCA also released a progress report at the end of 2020 outlining the progress made for each goal.

After the Covid-19 Pandemic hit, the End Child Poverty Plan prioritized five main goals for the year 2021; continue improving cost-effective programs to support families, improve the access and availability of childcare along with facing the childcare crisis, increase overall housing availability and reduce evictions, strengthen and expand community and school-based health care, and finally expand on the necessary safety nets like CalEITC the Young Child Tax Credit and Pandemic EBT.

California has the fifth-largest economy in the world. It also is a place where one-quarter of young children live in poverty. Information like this doesn't seem to add up. And it doesn't to most Californians; according to the ECPCA, 58% of people in the Golden State don't realize that the state is in a child poverty crisis. This problem is something that we all have to act upon if we are to allow our children, our students, our peers to thrive and make the best impact possible on our world.

Providing greater awareness to solutions like End Child Poverty would allow so many more families to thrive. We can only create change through the momentum that comes with a wide interest in a certain subject. And child poverty is unmistakably a subject worth fighting for.

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