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Child Poverty and California’s High Cost of Living

A quarter of young children in California live in poverty, yet the local variation in poverty rates is dramatic. Our recent report shows, for example, that the areas with the lowest and highest rates of child poverty in the state are less than 20 miles apart: child poverty is 4% in Redondo Beach, Manhattan Beach, and Hermosa Beach in Los Angeles County and 68% near southeastern LA City. (Data is for 2011–2014 combined, the most recent available).

Families adapt to California’s high cost of living in ways that vary across the state. The interactive map that accompanies our report allows stakeholders to investigate how their local area (defined to have a population of roughly 100,000) stacks up relative to other areas, their region, and the state as a whole.

For example, Selma, Kerman, and Coalinga make up a local area just west and south of Fresno. The area has a relatively high poverty rate of 30% among young children. Most of these children’s parents have limited education: 55% lack a high school degree compared with a statewide average of 37%. But for the most part they are working full-time (62% vs. 50% statewide). They also report the lowest annual housing costs ($5,888) of any area in the state. (We standardized this cost to represent a family of four.) This means they have a relatively low housing burden. Specifically, 18% of families living in poverty in this area use over half of their family resources to pay for housing, compared to the statewide average of 32%.

At the same time, 52% of poor children in this area live in overcrowded housing—about the same as in the state as a whole (55%) and higher than the regional average in the Central Valley (46%). Also, the share of working parents in these poor families who commute 60 minutes or more each way is relatively high at 14%, compared with 10% in the state as a whole.

In sum, the picture that emerges shows families of young children in poverty in this local area tend to have low housing costs relative to other parts of the state. Nevertheless, the cost of housing in inland California is still high compared to the rest of the country, and the data suggest poor families with young children in Selma, Kerman, and Coalinga are indeed making adaptations to cope with these costs—such as living in more crowded conditions and, in some cases, commuting long distances.

Child poverty is a difficult problem, both because it is so high in California and because the family circumstances that poor children experience can differ so much. Investigating varying patterns of housing and commuting across the state can help suggest how policies aimed at reducing the incidence—or severity—of poverty can be tailored to meet local and regional needs. 

News and analysis of California policy issues from PPIC

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