02/24/2012 03:35 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2012

Poverty In California: Fewer Children Living In Poor Communities, Study Shows

This article comes to us courtesy of California Watch.

By Bernice Yeung

Fewer California children are living in very poor communities than there were in 2000, according to an analysis released yesterday by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

But while the analysis [PDF] shows California has seen a decrease, there's been a 25 percent growth nationwide, to a total of nearly 8 million children.

Advocates said living in these communities, where 30 percent or more of the residents are poor, can have harmful long-term effects.

"Kids in these high-poverty areas are at risk for health and developmental challenges in almost every aspect of their lives, from education to their chances for economic success as adults," Laura Speer, the foundation's associate director for policy reform and data, said in a statement.

Statewide, 11 percent of kids grow up in communities where 30 percent or more of the residents live in poverty - which mirrors the national average - but not all counties experience the impact equally.

In Tulare County, for example, more than 33 percent of children live at that level of poverty, compared with 1.4 percent in Marin County.

"What the numbers show is that it varies a lot throughout the state," said Ted Lempert, president of Oakland-based Children Now, which conducted the California data analysis. "There are big cities and counties where very high concentrations of kids live in poverty, and what we see in terms of health and education is that kids who live in these areas have much greater barriers to success and access to health care and education."

Improving access to health care and a strong education is "a very doable and economical way to address the issue," Lempert said.

"One of the most proven solutions to poverty is education and getting kids the support they need so they can get jobs and not live in poverty as adults, so that means access to health care and dental care, access to good schools," he said.

The new report also noted that there are some promising strategies for reducing these numbers. For example, the development of mixed-income housing in Atlanta, Baltimore, New Orleans and San Francisco's Bayview neighborhood includes investments in local early childhood development and education programs for children.

In California, Fresno County has the greatest number of kids living in communities where at least 30 percent of residents are poor, at more than 37 percent. And among the largest U.S. cities, Fresno ranks fifth - nearly half of its kids are surrounded by impoverished conditions.

Cassandra Joubert, director of the Central California Children's Institute at Fresno State University, said these numbers can be explained by factors such as economic opportunity, education and immigration.

"Probably everybody understands that the high poverty in the Central Valley is tied to our agricultural workforce and our ag-led economy," she said. "The wages in that industry are not livable wages, and it's complicated by the fact that we have a high number of immigrant and undocumented populations that, because of immigration status, aren't eligible for a number of supports that would help to raise them from poverty."

Joubert added that education plays a role, too.

"We in the valley have the highest dropout rates and the lowest college matriculation rates in the state," she said. "For those jobs that require a higher education and provide better wages, our kids can't compete. The fact is that our economy is not very diverse, coupled with few opportunities for high-paying jobs - the incentives for getting an education are few. Those who do get an education leave the valley because there aren't a lot of opportunities here."

But the statistical portrait of Fresno's children isn't totally bleak. According to a county scorecard of well-being produced by the research and advocacy group Children Now, 65 percent of Fresno kids report being in very good or excellent health, 96 percent have health insurance and 75 percent of high school students passed the English portion of the state exit exam.

Still, Lempert said this national tally likely undercounts the number of children living in hardship in California because it is based on the federal poverty level, or an income of $22,000 for a family of four. According to the Public Policy Institute of California, unofficial poverty rates in the state "are even higher when California's high cost of living is accounted for."

"What's shocking about this is that there's a percentage of kids living in high-poverty areas. and that's based on a very low federal threshold," Lempert said.

Bernice Yeung is an investigative reporter for California Watch, a project of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting. Find more California Watch stories here.