Children's poverty rate soars, study finds

Level in Merced County is second highest in California

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comJanuary 8, 2013 

A poverty study released this week paints a grim picture for Merced County, highlighting one of poverty's growing victims -- children.

The county has a child poverty rate of 36 percent, the second highest in all 58 California counties, according to The Center for the Next Generation.

Since 2006, that number has grown more than 27 percent.

Merced County's overall poverty rate is 25.4 percent, the highest in the state, the report found.

The Center for the Next Generation, a nonprofit based in San Francisco, was started in 2011 by two brothers who wanted to tackle the issues of clean energy and investing in children and families.

The group defines poverty as a family of four making less than $22,000 a year.

Neighboring counties Fresno and Madera ranked in the top five for child poverty rates, with Fresno coming in at 36 percent and Madera at 35 percent. Stanislaus County's child poverty rate was 28.5 percent.

Statewide, California's official poverty rate is 6.1 million, or 16.2 percent, with more than one in five children living in poverty.

Ann O'Leary, the center's vice president and director of its Children and Families Program, said the report was developed using public information from the U.S. Census Bureau.

The group analyzed unemployment data, percentage of single-parent households, and each county's education and income levels in an effort to explain the report's findings.

After crunching the numbers, a few trends became apparent, O'Leary noted.

"There was a dramatic rise in single-parent households," she said. "Over one-third of households in Merced County are single parent, and half of those live in poverty. It's quite telling that we don't have a support system for single parents in our state."

According to the report, 33.2 percent of homes in Merced County are headed by a single parent, and 51.1 percent of those are in poverty.

The state's poverty rate for single mothers is 35.5 percent.

Another trend emerged when looking at the ethnicities of the children: 68 percent of the children in Merced County are Latino. Of those, 30 percent are living in poverty.

By comparison, white children make up 27 percent of the youth population and and less than 10 percent of them live in poverty.

Education level also plays an important part, according to the study. Merced County's percentage of people holding a four-year degree is 8.1 percent.

Merced County Superintendent of Schools Dr. Steven E. Gomes said parent education level is the highest predictor of student academic achievement, followed by socio-economic level.

"Children don't always have the advocates at home, because if their parents haven't been to college, they may not know how to help their kids go to college," Gomes said, adding that area schools have implemented resources to help.

"We take all the students that come through the door, and we work with all of them," he said. The schools may intervene by giving impoverished students the books to take home to read or allowing them more time to finish tasks.

According to the report's findings, education levels correspond with the county's median income level, which is $41,588 per family.

Another factor is the unemployment rate, currently 15.7 percent, O'Leary said.

"There's not family income stability and that's a big factor," O'Leary said.

O'Leary said low enrollment in assistance programs such as food stamps and earned-income-tax credit could be a contributing factor to the high poverty rates, including lack of awareness and outreach.

Alexandra Pierce, program administrator for the Merced County Human Services Agency's Child Welfare Services, said her department has experienced an increase in phone calls from families seeking assistance, with roughly 350 to 380 referrals a month.

"A lot of families are having difficulty making ends meet, so we've seen a rise in families for contacting us for community resources like housing assistance or help with electric bills," Pierce said. "Many people call us and want to know if we have links to help them find jobs, along with food, clothing and other benefits."

Pierce said the Child Welfare department has hired more social workers to help meet the need, as well as shifting staff when necessary.

Agreeing with Gomes, O'Leary said disrupting the poverty cycle starts with education.

"Education is, by far, the best way someone who has grown up in poverty can succeed as an adult," she said. "One of the things we help to do through the report is to raise awareness and challenge leaders in Sacramento to do a better job of sending money down to school districts with highest levels of poverty."

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

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