Childhood Poverty: California's 'Moral Outrage'

5 min
Merced County resident Norma Sandoval and her four-month-old son Alex barely get by, even with the state's generous social safety net. (Matt Rogers/KQED)

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hen Norma Sandoval of Merced looks at her baby son Alex, and really stares into his eyes, she sees a wise, old man. His eyebrows have this way of zigging and then zagging, he sucks his lips into his mouth as if he is pondering the universe. He makes Sandoval laugh, because really, what could a four-month old be contemplating? For Sandoval, Alex is the best thing in her life, which is otherwise full of challenges.

Like many first-time moms, Sandoval has been on a steep learning curve caring for Alex. She gets a lot of help from her own mother, who has eight other children, and from the child care workers who care for Alex while she finishes high school.

Sandoval’s mother was a teen when she had her, and despite swearing she wouldn’t do the same, here she is at 17 with a four-month old.

“I would see all these mothers so young and I would be like, oh my god they’re so stupid, how did they get pregnant so early,” Sandoval said. She laughed and added, “and then I got pregnant and now I’m like them.”

Sandoval knows what everyone thinks of her being a teen mom, but she is resolute — she wants the best for her baby.

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His mom’s determination might mean Alex will have a very bright future ahead of him, but right now he is part of a statistic that doesn’t bode well for his life chances: 43 percent of all children under three years-old in Merced county live in poverty. Sandoval doesn’t know a single person her age who isn’t struggling to make ends meet. It’s just how life is, she said.

Poverty has long been a political football, and the current polarized climate lays bare the tussle. At one end, child poverty has been called a “moral outrage” by California’s progressive governor, Gavin Newsom, who has vowed to end it. At the other end of the political spectrum, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson has said poverty is a “state of mind,” echoing the Trump administration position that government aid is not the answer.

Almost two decades ago, Norma Sandoval was herself born into an impoverished family. Her father, an immigrant from Mexico, went off daily to work the fields and her mother ran an ad-hoc childcare service out of their tiny apartment, mostly to help other families so parents could go work in the fields while she looked after the children.

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Despite both her parents working full-time much of her life, in her 17 years, Sandoval nor her parents have been able to climb above their challenging economic circumstances. So, like her mother before her, and 285,162 parents statewide, she too now raises her baby while living below the federal poverty line.

Sandoval has all the usual concerns and anxieties of a 17-year-old, but on a recent Wednesday morning she was particularly worried about how many times Alex had pooped. Her brow was deeply creased as she discussed what to do with Emily Maltva, the lead teacher at the child development center that sits on the campus of Yosemite High School where Sandoval is a junior.

“He pooped like twice,” Sandoval told Maltva. “I changed him and then like 10 minutes later he pooped again.” Maltva reassured her that this was completely normal for a baby. Then Sandoval confessed that it wasn’t really the pooping that worried her. Diapers are expensive. Sandoval’s brow furrowed further.

“We don’t have like that money or nothing,” she confessed. “But I don’t think money makes you a good mother or not,” she said, declaring that she was a very good mother for Alex. Not having money just makes things harder, Sandoval said as she prepared Alex for the half-hour trudge to her boyfriend's parents' apartment where they are currently living.

“Child poverty in California is definitely a serious problem,” said Sara Kimberlin, senior policy analyst with the California Budget and Policy Center (CBPC).

It’s a problem that has gotten steadily worse over the years as the numbers of babies and children living in poverty has increased. The numbers are stark. One in five babies and toddlers in California were born into poverty in the last few years. That’s down from five years ago when one quarter of all babies statewide lived below the federal poverty line. In some places it is much higher, like Alex’s home, in Merced County, and the counties of Glenn, Colusa, Trinity and Tehama, where almost half of all babies born start life in impoverished families.

Is California's Housing Crisis to Blame?

The earliest data on early childhood poverty came soon after standards for measuring poverty were first developed in the 1960s. By 1970 — one of the first years this data for young children was collected — about 14 percent of kids under five were poor in California. That number climbed steadily over the years. In 2012 it was 26 percent of all children statewide, according to Census and American Community Survey data.

More recent studies, like one from the San Francisco-based Center for the Next Generation, highlight the long-term economic threat posed by California's high rates of childhood poverty.

So how did the baby poverty numbers get so high? The answer has little to do with babies themselves. While the cost of diapers and infant formula has risen, Kimberlin points to macro-economic factors that have seen more families fall below the poverty line.

The CBPC's Kimberlin said California’s rising housing costs have perhaps been the biggest factor in pushing more families out from self sufficiency.

“From 2006 to 2016, rents in California rose by about three times as much median annual earnings for a full-time worker,” said Kimberlin. “That just creates a long-term problem where more and more families find themselves squeezed trying to cover their basic costs.”

When the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis hit, the number of California children under two-years-old in poverty climbed steeply, Kimberlin said. “The great recession definitely made things worse.”

Alex Sandoval, age four months, begins his day at a child care center with his mom, Norma, playing with one of his favorite toys. Norma attends Yosemite High School while Alex attends the child care center attached to the school.
Alex Sandoval, age four months, begins his day at a child care center with his mom, Norma, playing with one of his favorite toys. Norma attends Yosemite High School while Alex attends the child care center attached to the school. (Matt Rogers/KQED)

Kimberlin said the recession’s impact can be traced to the spike in impoverished babies and toddlers. One of the most decisive budget cuts in the years of the recession was to subsidized child care that the state of California provided for low-income families. So add to the stagnating wages and high housing costs the “shrinking availability of affordable childcare,” and Kimberlin said and you have “a perfect storm that really made it difficult for families with children to make ends meet.”

Yet during the years of the recession, many Californians suffered, and the worsening situation for the state’s youngest residents didn’t sound alarm bells. Many children who are now in elementary school were babies and toddlers during the recession. They missed out on quality early education as preschool seats disappeared after 2008, and parents had to figure out babysitting or drop out of the workforce. With less family income the nutrition they received in their critical early development years was likely poorer, too.

Lori Turk of the Lucile Packard Foundation for Children’s Health (LPFCH) wonders why the moral outrage at the increasing child poverty numbers isn’t more widespread.

“One in five babies being born into poverty in California is just absolutely unforgivable,” Turk said. During the recession years, one quarter of all babies were born into poverty.

Perhaps the demographics of the impoverished babies and toddlers has something to do with the lack of attention and action. In California it’s disproportionately babies of color that are born into poverty, something Turk said has nothing to do with the babies themselves. “Really this is about historical discriminatory practices.”

Each year Kidsdata, a project of LPFCH, releases a report documenting the number of children in poverty. Turk said the high numbers of children of color in poverty comes from the discrimination their parents have suffered over the years. “For housing, for employment, the parents may be treated differently,” she said.

It has been well documented that African-Americans, Latinos and other immigrant groups have encountered redlining in housing, banks not lending to them, and outright discrimination in the job market.

Turk said if a parent deals with discrimination when they try to rent a home, or in the job market, “there’s a trickle down effect [to] their babies and their children.” Unstable employment and housing “means then their babies are directly impacted by this,” Turk said.

Social Safety Net Helps

In California, poor families are not completely on their own. Experts estimate that the child poverty numbers would be almost 15 percent higher — around one in three kids — if it wasn’t for the social safety net, a tapestry of local, state and federal programs that give help to impoverished families. From Section 8 housing vouchers, to food stamps, cash aid and subsidized preschool, the welfare benefits in California are robust.

“There is funding for providing healthful food, milk or other dairy products. There’s subsidies for parent to make sure they’re in housing for their children. There are child care subsidies,” Turk said.

She said these programs are clearly helping families from falling into complete disaster. Norma Sandoval agrees.

“My mom she works, my dad works, my boyfriend’s parents they work, so no one would be able to watch the baby,” Sandoval said.

She gets MediCal for her baby and food stamps, both state and federally funded programs. Her child care is also free, paid to her high school child care center by the state of California. But she's one of the lucky ones. According to a 2016 report from the California Budget and Policy Center, six out of seven parents eligible for child care subsidies did not get them, and the waiting list can be more than 1 million people.

“I think if I didn’t have child care I wouldn’t make it,” Sandoval said.

Merced County resident Norma Sandoval holds her four-month-old son, Alex.
Merced County resident Norma Sandoval holds her four-month-old son, Alex. (Matt Rogers/KQED)

Despite the subsidies she gets, Sandoval still can’t buy all the basics for her baby. So she leans on her family, her unofficial safety net. She doesn’t pay rent to her boyfriend’s parents, and her own parents buy her extra food and the baby’s diapers, which add up to a lot.

And while the safety net that holds parents like Sandoval is working, it’s also a byzantine system to navigate. It’s something that Monika Grasley, president of a nonprofit community organization in Merced called Lifeline CDC, sees parents struggle with every day.

“I don’t understand why we have food stamps that allow us to buy junk food but do not provide diapers, it makes no sense to me,” Grasley said. “So what it encourages parents to do is sell their food stamps so they can purchase diapers for their babies.” And with less resources, parents tend to choose the cheapest food option for their children, which oftentimes have little nutritional value, she said.

Grasley said there are also many issues that impoverished families deal with for which government help is limited or nonexistent. Many that she works with don’t have transportation. They struggle to find child care, and some don’t even have a cell phone.

“It’s all about how do I survive, not how do I thrive,” Grasley said.

Norma Sandoval herself grew up with very little. But she wants better for her baby.

“Slowly slowly we’re going to learn, slowly we’re going to get that help that we need to get a better life for us and our kids,” Sandoval said.

And so, on top of everything else she is juggling, Sandoval shows up to Yosemite High School which has a special program for teen moms like her. She’s got big dreams.

“My plan is to finish high school, go to college and be a nurse,” Sandoval said. She admits before getting pregnant she hated school and used to ditch classes often. Now she wouldn’t do that, “because I have a baby and I want a better life for him and me.”

Note: This story is part of KQED's series Starting Blocks, which is examining the hurdles faced by California's kids, especially those in low income families.

Deepa Fernandes is an Early Childhood reporting fellow at Pacific Oaks College, which is funded in part by First 5 LA.

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