CA must invest in ending child poverty

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OPINION – With headlines focused on climate change, political polarization, and threats to democracy and basic rights, it’s hard to find a whole lot to celebrate in the news today. But California’s success in reducing child poverty during the COVID pandemic is a historic achievement. In just two years starting in 2019, we reduced the number of children in poverty in our state by 42 percent; that’s 770,000 fewer children living in poverty.

This happened because we invested in programs and policies that helped children and families survive and cope during the pandemic. With many federal pandemic policies and emergency protections going away, California must keep investing in critical supports for children and families. If we don’t, then the historic progress we’ve made will erode—and we’ll very quickly start to see more children, not fewer, experiencing the harms and indignities of poverty.

During the height of the pandemic, lawmakers truly stepped up for families and children, with a powerful impact on people’s lives. COVID-related investments resulted in steep reductions in poverty among children and families in California and nationwide. For example, by increasing emergency food benefits available to families through the CalFresh program, California lowered child poverty by 4.6 percentage points between 2019 and 2021. And, thanks to the federal child tax credit, which provided expanded cash benefits for families with children, 380,000 children in California were able to escape poverty in the same two-year period.

In 2021, however, Congress allowed the expanded federal child tax credit to end; the federal government also reduced other pandemic benefits including increases in unemployment compensation. As a result, national poverty rates began to rise again in 2022; nearly 4 million more U.S. children entered poverty in one month after the end of the child tax credit in December 2021.

In just two years starting in 2019, we reduced the number of children in poverty in our state by 42 percent; that’s 770,000 fewer children living in poverty.

Now is the time for California elected leaders to be bold and to build on the historic progress we’ve seen. As a state that is poised to be the fourth largest economy in the world, California has the capacity and the resources to sustain—and grow—investments in children and families. And by investing in our youngest residents, we can ensure that the California economy stays strong and continues to provide opportunities for all residents.

What are the highest-return investments we can make to reduce child poverty right now? More than 170 partners and allies supporting the End Poverty in California campaign have signed onto an agenda that imagines a future where all of our children are nourished, respected, secure, valued and free. Among the cornerstone recommendations:

  • Strengthening California’s child care infrastructure by providing livable, dignified wages for workers and waiving fees.
  • Reimagining the CalWORKs program by expanding eligibility for benefits and increasing benefit levels.
  • Boosting CalFresh food benefits for families and making free school meals available to all students.
  • Expanding the safety net to serve all Californians, for example by providing unemployment benefits to undocumented workers.
  • Expanding eligibility for and increasing state tax credits for families.

Protecting and boosting these investments will deliver cross-cutting benefits for children, families and the entire state. Reducing child hunger, for example, will help ensure that more children can do better in school and move onto college and good careers. And strengthening childcare means improving child outcomes, as well as allowing more parents to work, support their families and help their communities thrive.

Some may ask how the state can make these investments at a time when lawmakers are concerned about a budget deficit. To address that question, advocates have identified a clear roadmap to raising more revenues and we need to reprioritize our current spending.

California has an opportunity—and an obligation—to lead the nation in showing that recent gains against child poverty can last and not be lost. We can build on what we’ve accomplished by providing more support for the 9 percent of California children—nearly 800,000 in total—who remain in poverty even after the gains of the last few years. Now is no time to erase or stall the progress we’ve made. We can still do better by our most vulnerable children – and we must.

Shimica Gaskins is the President & CEO of GRACE/End Child Poverty CA. Ted Lempert is the president of Children Now, a statewide whole-child advocacy organization that coordinates the Children’s Movement of California

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