Poverty Soars Among Children in California School Districts

Between 2007 and 2010, poverty in the state ballooned 30 percent.

By Julianne Hing Dec 07, 2011

Poverty is soaring in California school districts, according to recent Census figures, with little relief in sight.

As the number of children living in poverty continues to rise, meeting students’ educational needs becomes a more complex task, and the impact of poverty on children’s ability to learn can’t be understated, say education experts and community advocates.

"Poverty creates a lot of constraints for families to provide appropriate learning environments for children," said Angelica Solis, the executive director of Alliance for a Better Community, a Los Angeles-based community advocacy group that works with Latino families in the city’s public schools. "Everything from having enough food on the table to providing adequate space to study and a quiet place to sleep at night."

"If a child isn’t getting adequate nutrition or enough sleep, then their ability to concentrate and do well in school is diminished."

Between 2007 and 2010, poverty in California ballooned 30 percent. In 2010, 27.3 percent of the 773,749 children in Los Angeles Unified School District, for example, are living in poverty, compared to the district’s 23.1 percent poverty rate in 2007.

The increase isn’t limited alone to California. In the same period, two million more children sunk into poverty. And 96 of the nation’s largest 100 school districts also saw increases in poverty. Today, nearly half–45 percent–of U.S. schoolchildren between the ages of 5 and 17 are enrolled in school districts where poverty levels exceed the national average of 19.8 percent.

The federal government sets the poverty level at $22,113 for a family of four people, and uses the data to set funding for schools.

The rise in poverty is inextricably linked to a similar rise in homelessness and rates of children who depend on free and reduced lunch. Since the start of the recession, more and more families are on the move, Solis said, moving in with other family members to share the rent of one home instead of several. More parents, out of work and with no permanent address, are spending their days just trying to scrounge enough food for dinner for their kids, and find a place to sleep at night.

The impacts of grinding poverty create more educational challenges, say experts, but poverty gets further entrenched because schools where poor kids are concentrated are given less to work with to meet their greater needs, says Jamienne Studley, president of Public Advocates, a California-based advocacy organization and law firm that works on poverty issues.

Studley says that states serious about their mandate to provide a quality public education to their students must re-evaluate funding streams to make sure that resources are allocated equitably.

"It’s a system question," Studley said. "We make it harder for them to overcome those problems instead of easier. We send them the brand new untested teachers, we give them less funding instead of more, we are less likely to give them the schoolbooks they need. We stack the odds against them."