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California Kids Rank Low in Well-Being

Every year, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a charitable organization working with kids in the U.S., releases their "KIDS COUNT Data Book." It's a lengthy volume that examines where each of the 50 states rank in terms of "child well-being," a blanket term the covers everything from health and education to the ability to obtain food assistance.

And it was a bit of a mixed bag this year for California.

As the intro points out, this was the case for most of the country:

Job growth and consumer spending are up, while unemployment is down. Nonetheless, there are warning signs that the recovery may be leaving the lowest-income families behind, disproportionately affecting workers of color and their children. We know from research that low family income can have negative effects on children.

But as far as California's concerned, when the report begins to break things down, the picture starts looking even uglier.

In overall "child well-being," the state ranked 38 out of 50. (This is an improvement over last year, when California was 40th overall.) In education, it also ranked 38th. When it comes to children's health, the state moved all the way up to 14th. And in terms of the nebulous "family and community" calculus, California is down to 42nd, largely to do with the fact that California ranks last in the nation in terms of children living in families "not headed by a high school graduate."

 

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But when it comes to "economic well-being," which has to do with the income of the parents and accessibility of affordable housing, the state dropped all the way down to 49th.

"When you look at the data, it really tells the story about families that are struggling, and a recovery that has left a large number of kids and families behind," Director Jessica Mindnich of advocacy group Research for Children Now said. "The poverty rate for children is now 23%. In 2008, it was 18%. We still have many more children living in poverty than we did in 2008."

The problem is there's no clear way out of poverty for children, particularly when parents don't have the income to assist them. "Nearly half of all kids in this state are living in households where 30% of pre-tax dollars are tied up in housing costs," said Mindnich. "We're seeing that we have a lot of families still struggling and they're struggling to have secure employment. They're struggling really to afford to live in this state."

One way this manifests itself is through the inability to access food. The L.A. County Department of Public Health released a report last week that shows 530,000 households in L.A. County are "not always able to afford enough food."

"One of the things we work on is increasing access to food through the Free and Reduced Price School Meals," Mindnich said. This is a program that allows low-income families to purchase their children's school meals at reduced rates. However, as Mindnich points out, this doesn't take into account what happens when the school closes down for the summer. "During the summer there's a large drop-off in meals served," she says, "so we're concerned that these kids are having to go hungry because they're not being fed at school."

One of the biggest problems is that many low-income families simply don't know they're eligible for certain programs:

[M]any people don't know that the state's food stamp program is now called CalFresh, and those who qualify can apply through the county's Department of Public Social Services. Officials with the department say 59 percent of those estimated to be eligible are receiving CalFresh food assistance.

Getting the information out there is problem number one.

As far as which direction we're heading, Mindnich is optimistic. "For health we're 14th, while last year we were 26th, so that's a pretty significant increase," she said. "That's evidence that when we prioritize things, we can do better for kids."

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