California Leads in Children's Health But Lags in Child Poverty

by | July 21, 2015

By Jill Tucker

California was just one Mississippi away from dead last in a new national ranking of the economic well-being of children, an indicator of poverty and financial instability of families.

Despite a reinvigorated economy, millions of California families are still digging out from the 2008 recession, with wages for many failing to keep up with the cost of living, according to the 2015 Kids Count report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation released Tuesday.

Across the state, 23 percent of children were living in poverty in 2013, the most recent data available, compared with 18 percent in 2008. In Mississippi, which ranked 50th among the states, 34 percent of children were living in poverty at last count. New Mexico came in just above California, at 48th, in economic well-being of children.

"What we saw at the national level, and we saw it in California, is that the economic recovery has not lifted all boats," said Laura Speer, associate director for policy reform and advocacy at the foundation. "They haven't gotten back to where they were before the recession."

The state's high cost of living and increasing rents and home prices are contributing factors to those living on the economic margins, she said. "There are millions of families that have been left behind entirely by the economic recovery," Speer said. "It's a story about rising inequality in the state."

California, however, has become a national model in children's health. The state ranked 26th in 2008 and then leapfrogged to 14th in 2013.

The state showed significant improvement in access to health care and in child and teen mortality, according to Jessica Mindnich, director of research at Children Now, a California research and advocacy organization regarding children's issues.

In addition, in June, California will start offering health insurance to immigrant children living in the state illegally, which means for the first time it's possible to reach a 100 percent insured rate, she said.

"We've taken the lead nationally in children's health," Mindnich said. "We're moving in the right direction."

The improvement in children's health care offers hope for the report's other indicators, showing that it's possible to move the needle from worst to better, if not best.

Overall, California ranked 38th in the nation for the well-being of children. The report also ranked the state in education (38th) and family and community (42nd).

The state also showed dramatic improvement in teen births, to 26 per 1,000 in 2013, down from 40 in 2008. The mortality rate among children and teens also dropped to 24 per 100,000, down from 29.

Nationally, Minnesota earned the highest overall ranking. The 15 states at the bottom of the national ranking were all in Southeastern, Southwestern and Appalachian states, with the exception of California.

Across the country, 22 percent of children lived in poverty in 2013, according to the report, up from 18 percent in 2008.

"While we've seen an increase in employment in recent years, many of these jobs are low-wage and cannot support even basic family expenses," said Patrick McCarthy, president and CEO of the Casey foundation, a national nonprofit focused on children's issues, in a statement. "Far too many families are still struggling to provide for the day-to-day needs of their children, notably for the 16 million kids who are living in poverty."

(c)2015 the San Francisco Chronicle