California’s chance to lead for poor children

MARIAN WRIGHT EDELMAN | 6/11/2018, 9:01 p.m.
When I was a young civil rights lawyer for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in Mississippi, I was called in ...

The crisis of deep child poverty persists in California, which recently surpassed the United Kingdom as the fifth largest economy in the world. One in 5 California children was poor in 2016, and 1 in 12 children lived in deep poverty. In a high cost-of-living state where the monthly fair market rent for a 2-bedroom apartment is $1,608, many families lack the resources to cover rent and all their children’s basic needs.

Kevilyn Conley, a mother of two in Los Angeles and a participant in the Children’s Defense Fund-California’s Parent Engagement Institute, recounts the struggle to make ends meet when her first son was born eight years ago. Conley and her husband were evicted from their home and the stresses of poverty led to the breakup of their marriage. Between 2010 and 2013, Conley was homeless with her young child, sleeping on the floors and ­­­­couches of relatives and in temporary shelters. “Poverty stagnates you,” she said. “It limits you from doing so many things. It forces you to make compromising decisions ... I felt inadequate.”­­­­­­

Growing up in deep poverty impairs children’s ability to learn, develop and thrive. Children living every day with deprivation suffer toxic stress and delayed brain development that disrupts their ability to succeed in school and in life. Deep poverty damages the chance that a child will ever escape poverty and fuels an intergenerational cycle of poverty. Children born in deep poverty are three times as likely to be deeply poor at age 40 than children not born in deep poverty.

The United States of America, one of the richest countries in the world, can and must end child poverty now before another generation is impacted and the cycle is perpetuated. Most urgently, we must take steps immediately to protect children from the harms of deep child poverty as I hope California is about to do. State Senator Holly J. Mitchell, the Children’s Defense Fund’s California office, and more than 100 organizations across the state are championing an effort to end deep childhood poverty in California by increasing cash assistance available to all families through CalWORKs, California’s Temporary Aid to Needy Families program.

The CalWORKs program helps more than 800,000 low-income children stave off the worst destitution. Nearly 80 percent of CalWORKs recipients are families of color. They all struggle as CalWORKs monthly checks have lost nearly one-third of their purchasing power over the past decade. The current monthly maximum grant for a family of three is $714, which is just 41 percent of the federal poverty level and far short of what a family needs to make ends meet in California. In Los Angeles, for example, the combination of CalWORKs and food assistance barely covers half the median rent for a two-bedroom apartment, let alone childcare, food, transportation, clothing, and everything else it takes to raise a family.

Hearing the cries of California’s poorest children and families, the California Senate voted last week to raise cash assistance levels to ensure no child receiving CalWORKs lives in deep poverty. A family of three would be eligible for $1,046 a month by 2021-22. Over the next two weeks legislative leaders and Governor Jerry Brown will negotiate a final state budget. For the sake of California children and as a moral pacesetter for our nation that final budget must include an end to deep child poverty.

America has made important progress since Kennedy’s 1967 trip through the Mississippi Delta, but much, much more is needed. The CalWORKs benefit increase is an important step in the right direction. Children deserve no less. And I hope our nation will follow what I hope and pray will be California’s positive example.

Marian Wright Edelman is the president of the Children’s Defense Fund. For more information, go to http://www.childrensdefense.org.