skip to Main Content
Just the FACTS

Child Poverty in California

    • Child poverty rates remain higher than before the recession.
      According to official poverty statistics, 18.1% of children in California lived in families without enough resources to make ends meet in 2017. This is down significantly from 2016 (19.9%) but is still above the most recent low in 2007 (17.3%). The official poverty measure is a long-standing yardstick that does not account for differences in the cost of living across the United States or within California, family needs like medical or child care expenses, or the boost that safety net benefits give to many families, especially those with children.
    • Without the social safety net, child poverty would be much higher.
      The California Poverty Measure (CPM), a joint research effort by PPIC and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, is a more comprehensive approach to gauging poverty in California. We find that 19.3% of children (about 1.7 million) were in poverty in 2017, a marked improvement from 2016, when the child poverty rate was 21.3%. Without safety net resources, 31.9% of children (about 2.9 million) would live in poverty. Because many safety net programs focus specifically on helping children, they keep a larger share of children than adults from falling into poverty.
    • The Earned Income Tax Credits and CalFresh help the most children avoid poverty.
      California’s largest social safety net programs for children continue to be the Earned Income Tax Credits (both the federal EITC and the CalEITC), CalFresh (California’s main food assistance program), CalWORKs (cash assistance for families with children), the federal Child Tax Credit (CTC), federal housing subsidies, school breakfast and lunch, Supplemental Security Income (SSI/SSP), and the Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC). In 2017, the combined EITCs and CalFresh lowered the child poverty rate by the largest amounts (3.4 and 3.2 percentage points, respectively). CalWORKs, the CTC, housing subsidies, and school meals reduced child poverty by 1.3 to 2 points each. These differing effects reflect the scale and scope of each program as well as participation rates among eligible families.

Child poverty is high but would be even higher in the absence of the social safety net

Figure 1: Child poverty is high but would be even higher in the absence of the social safety net

SOURCE: Estimates from the 2017 CPM.

NOTES: “All programs” bar shows the combined effect of the individual programs listed below—but the individual program bars do not sum to the top bar due to overlapping program effects. The CalWORKs bar includes receipt of General Assistance, California’s cash assistance program for adults without dependent children, though amounts received in families with children are very small.

    • Close to half of California’s children live in or near poverty, but few are in deep poverty.
      In 2017, 23.6% of children lived above, but fairly close to, the poverty line (up to one and a half times above it). All told, 43.0% of children in the state were poor or near poor. However, a much lower 3.9% of California’s children were in deep poverty (in families with less than half of the resources needed to make ends meet).
    • Child poverty varies substantially across California counties and districts.
      From 2015 to 2017, Los Angeles County had on average the highest child poverty rate in California: 26.1%. Rates in Orange (24.2%), Santa Barbara (24.2%), and Santa Cruz (23.8%) Counties were also among the highest. El Dorado County had the lowest poverty rate among children (8.2%). Child poverty rates vary even more widely (from 6.7% to 41.2%) across state assembly, state senate, and congressional districts.

Child poverty rates vary widely across California’s counties

Figure 2: Child poverty rates vary widely across California’s counties

SOURCE: Estimates from the 2015–2017 CPM combined.

NOTES: For some counties, poverty rates cannot be calculated individually. Those counties are grouped. All estimates are subject to uncertainty due to sampling variability. The uncertainty is greater for less populous counties and county groups (because of smaller survey sample sizes). The statewide margin of error is ±0.4 percentage points. The median county margin of error is ±3.7 percentage points. For counties and county groups marked with an asterisk (*), the margins of error range from ±4.2 to ±9.8 percentage points. Margins of error calculated for a 99 percent confidence interval. For more county-level information and for child poverty rates by state assembly, state senate, and federal congressional districts, see our interactive maps.

    • Race and parental education are both associated with child poverty.
      The poverty rate for Latino children (25.8%) was more than double that of white children (10.4%) in California in 2017. The poverty rates among African American (18.6%) and Asian American/Pacific Islander (14.4%) children were also high. The relationship between child poverty and parents’ educational attainment is striking. Among children in families where no adult had completed high school (about 9% of children), 49.2% were in poverty. Among families where someone held at least a bachelor’s degree, only 7.7% of children were poor. Children age 5 and under had the same poverty rates as older children (19.3%).
    • Most poor children are in working families.
      In 2017, 84.5% of poor children in California lived in families with at least one working adult. Half of poor children (52.4%) lived in families with at least one adult working full time for the entire year, and a third (32.2%) had at least one adult in the family working part time and/or part of the year.


Sources: All estimates are based on the California Poverty Measure (CPM) unless otherwise noted. Official poverty statistics are from the For more about the CPM, including methodological changes that affect the comparability with prior publications, see Bohn et al., The California Poverty Measure (PPIC, 2013). For methodological changes that affect comparability with publications prior to 2016, see Bohn et al., The California Poverty Measure: 2014 (Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, 2017).

Related Content

Fact Sheets
Poverty in California
The Working Poor in California

A Snapshot of California’s Working Poor
California Poverty by County and Legislative District
Who’s in Poverty in California?

Understanding Poverty in California

Supported with funding from the California Wellness Foundation and the James Irvine Foundation


Sarah BohnSarah Bohn
Vice President of Research and Senior Fellow
Caroline DanielsonCaroline Danielson
Policy Director and Senior Fellow
Photo of Tess ThormanTess Thorman
Research Associate


Back To Top