Even after years of economic recovery in California, the rate of local childhood poverty has been increasing every year since the Great Recession, according to a report released this week by the Kern County Network for Children.
Roughly 81,230 kids – or about 32 percent of all children in Kern County – were living below the federal poverty threshold in 2015, the report shows. That’s enough kids to fill the stands at Bakersfield College’s Memorial Stadium more than four times.
Kern County’s child poverty rate was the seventh worst statewide, the report shows.
“Poverty is still an issue,” Tom Corson, executive director of the Kern County Network for Children, said. “It’s scary. We don’t seem to be coming out of that recession like other counties have since 2007.”
Poverty leaves few facets a child's life untouched. Kids who are poor are more likely to be food insecure, but at the same time suffer from higher obesity rates than others. Many live in crowded houses or apartments, doubling or tripling up with others. They have less access to quality childcare and are more likely to live in dangerous neighborhoods, being exposed to violence and crime that can trigger chronic levels of stress and anxiety.
Although Kern County’s overall population grew by 14 percent between 2007 and 2015, the population living in poverty grew 37 percent during the same time period, the report shows.
Corson was unable to pin the swelling poverty rates to any single issue, but said the loss of jobs in oil and agricultural production most likely played a role. The county unemployment rate remains above 10 percent, almost double the state rate.
The rate of childhood poverty still hasn’t decreased below pre-recession levels, when 25 percent of the county’s kids were considered impoverished, said Kimberley Silva, a research associate with KCNC.
Most shocking, perhaps, is that poverty among children in the Kern River Valley spiked 32 percent in a single year - more than three times higher than Lost Hills, which increased 10 percent and Frazier Park, which spiked 9 percent. Bakersfield and the surrounding neighborhoods including Oildale, Rosedale, Shafter and Buttonwillow all saw decreased rates of poverty, the report shows.
It doesn’t explore the reasons why.
Despite the bleak outcomes of childhood poverty, Corson said there was some progress made over the prior year. Graduation rates increased to 84 percent, about 95 percent of kids received state-required immunizations by the time they enrolled in school, outpacing the state average, and the rate of substantiated child abuse and neglect rates fell for the eighth consecutive year.
“That’s huge,” Corson said. “It means we’re doing something right with prevention.”
But there’s still more work to be done to break the cycle of poverty and improve overall health among kids, he said.
Roughly 48 percent of children live with single mothers, who earn an average annual salary of $20,734 – about $5,000 more than the federal poverty threshold. At the same time, child care costs an average of $8,300 annually for a preschooler, about 40 percent of a single mom’s gross annual income.
“Single moms have a higher level of poverty than anybody across the board,” Corson said, adding that there aren’t enough child care slots open countywide to accommodate the kids who need the service, and when mothers do find open spots, they’re expensive.
When children don’t have proper childcare and don’t attend preschool during the critically important first five years, it stunts brain development, according to the report.
“In a lot of ways, we’re setting them up for failure,” Corson said.
Kids growing up in economically disadvantaged households are consistently outperformed by their more affluent peers in state reading and math tests, and are three times more likely to drop out of high school, the report shows.
More than 1,330 students dropped out of county high schools in 2015-2016, and 91 percent of them were impoverished. That’s about seven drop-outs every day.
Those drop-outs statistically earn 45 percent less income than high school grads – about $17,000 annually.
“When these kids start kindergarten behind their affluent peers, they get further behind and never catch up,” Silva said.
Corson said that his network has been focusing more on issues related to poverty, working with the Kern County Superintendent of Schools office while organizing trainings and forums to educate those working directly with children on the culture of poverty, how it creates trauma for kids, and how to work through those issues.