Children In Poverty Can’t Wait Any Longer For A Decent Life

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Could you live on $704 a month in California?

Of course the answer is no. It is unconscionable that we expect low-income families trying to rebuild their lives to pull themselves out of poverty with so little assistance. But $704 is the maximum amount of assistance a family of three receives in the CalWORKs program, a result of policy decisions made in California over a number of years.

On March 9, a few hundred advocates, policymakers, researchers, and other leaders gathered at a convening called Policy Insights 2016 to consider policies that could improve the lives of low-income Californians.

There was no shortage of ideas for improving existing policies and bringing new ones to California, with many attendees feeling there is momentum to address the state’s poverty crisis. With one in five children living in poverty, it’s an epidemic that can’t be ignored.

A recent analysis by the California Budget & Policy Center, which hosted the convening, found that the maximum grant a family might receive through CalWORKs is not enough to cover the fair market rent for even a one-bedroom apartment in most of the state’s 58 counties, and the meager wages earned by the majority of CalWORKs parents don’t go far enough to make up the difference.

Another analysis by the Budget Center found a single mother with two kids would have to work 2.9 full-time minimum-wage jobs – nearly 120 hours a week – to afford a two-bedroom apartment.

And while the maximum CalWORKs grant a family of three can receive is $704, most families in the program receive far less. In fiscal year 2014-15, the average monthly benefit for CalWORKs cases was just $491.59, according to a January 2016 CalWORKs fact sheet from the California Department of Social Services.

Because of inflation, the purchasing power of CalWORKs grants has declined over the years, too, meaning families have even less to cover basic needs such as housing and food. The grant amount proposed in this year’s budget buys $114 less than it did before the recession, according to a recent report by the Legislative Analyst’s Office.

Where does this leave families?

Many fall deeper into poverty, becoming the “‘poor poor’ who often go unnoticed,” said Sen. Holly Mitchell of Los Angeles, one of the speakers at the convening. They are the children and families surviving on income at or below 50% of the Federal Poverty Line – that means $11,500 a year. Half of California children are living in this deep, inhumane poverty; many forced to live with several other families in one home or constantly moving from one family member or friend’s house to the next because their parents cannot afford a safe, permanent place to stay.

Research is very clear what life will look like for these children in the years to come: poor health, poor performance in schools and unlikely to ever escape poverty.

What are some of the solutions?

To start, CalWORKs grants must reflect the reality low-income families face as they work and live in California. If you are working and doing everything you can to support your family, it’s fair for the state to help you achieve a decent life.

“Children are entitled to the very best we have to offer them,” said Sen. Mitchell.

Sen. Mitchell said raising CalWORKs grants to realistic levels and repealing the Maximum Family Grant rule (MFG) are the top policy changes advocates should be pushing the Legislature and Governor to take action on this year. She has been a leading champion of repealing MFG in the Legislature. The MFG rule prevents a family in the CalWORKs program from receiving additional assistance when a child is born into that family. Repealing this policy is also CWDA’s top budget and legislative priority.

Additionally, a critical piece of providing the best for children is helping them with a safe place to live. Many of the challenges facing California families and the proposed solutions discussed at Policy Insights 2016 are interwoven with housing affordability.

“Housing is the foundation for everything,” said Assembly Speaker Emeritus Toni Atkins of San Diego, another speaker at the convening, noting that homes are where children can safely do their homework, where parents can effectively get ready for jobs, and where those recovering from addiction or being treated for mental illness are best served.

Sadly, having a safe, affordable home to start the day is not the reality for a huge swath of low-income Californians. A survey by the California Housing Partnership found not a single county has sufficient housing supply for low-income renters – defined as those spending more than 50% of their incomes on rent. The Partnership estimates one-fourth of children living in poverty are there because their families cannot afford housing.

A multitude of policy solutions are at the ready and the sense of urgency at the Capitol is palpable for advocates and many lawmakers. The question remains whether this will be the year of significant action to end the generational cycle of poverty.

As CWDA’s Executive Director Frank Mecca reminded the audience at Policy Insights 2016, California’s children can’t wait any longer. 

“For very poor children, Rome is burning now,” he said.