The indicators are coming in thick and fast:
• One in four California students lives in poverty, compared to one in six before the recession began.
• Students’ health, psychological and social service needs have increased with the recession.
• An epidemic of hunger grips many counties – a lot of students don’t eat at all when they go home.
• Homelessness among students is growing.
These are some of the grim findings from a recent statewide poll of a representative sample of 87 principals conducted by UCLA’s Institute for Democracy, Education and Access (IDEA) and the University of California All Campus Consortium on Research for Diversity (ACCORD).
“It was unanimous that families were facing food insecurity, job losses and foreclosures,” observed Sophie Fanelli, IDEA’s director of research, who co-authored the report, “Educational Opportunities in Hard Times: The Impact of the Economic Crisis on Public Schools and Working Families.”
One-third of public school principals reported increased homelessness among their students, with several of them indicating they had never before seen homelessness in their schools.
“It’s the bleakest I’ve ever seen,” said a principal of a Southern California high school.
Recent findings by other groups that monitor California children’s health and wellbeing reflect the UCLA findings. A report by the California non-profit, Western Center on Law and Poverty (WCLP), which compiled data from school districts throughout the state, shows that homelessness among California’s school children has skyrocketed in the last couple of years. In 2008-09, more than 288,000 children were homeless and attending school. This represents a 27 percent increase over the 2007-08 year.
“Half of those children are Latino,” said Michael Herald, a legislative advocate with WCLP. “It’s pretty apparent foreclosures and job losses have a lot to do with this. Data shows that people of color are more likely to lose their homes.”
Herald said Hmong families in the Central Valley have been deeply affected.
According to kidsdata.org, a statewide database that offers comprehensive information on children’s health, in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available, 18.5 percent of California’s children age 0 to 17 lived in families that struggled to put food on the table. Of them, 27.5 percent (about 161,000) were black, 25.5 percent (1, 247, 000) were Latino children and 24 percent (11,000) were Native American children, compared to 8.4 percent of Caucasian (260,000) and 10.5 percent of Asian American children.
Continued high unemployment and home foreclosure rates are expected to raise that figure to 27 percent this year, before it drops to 24 percent in 2012, said Andy Krackov, assistant vice president of programs and partnerships of the Palo-Alto-based Packard Foundation for Children’s Health (PFCH), a public charity started to protect and maintain the health of children. PFCH maintains kidsdata.org.
“This means, the impact of the recession will likely be long lasting,” Krackov said.
Dire as the situation is, California’s children could face harder times if Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s proposal to reduce eligibility and funding for CalWORKs (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Children) program is implemented. The program is a safety net one preventing many families from joining the ranks of the homeless. Last year, when California’s budget deficit grew to a staggering $27 billion, many safety net programs were either cut or about to be cut.
Elimination of summer school programs in many districts last year has resulted in more widespread hunger among California children.
“For many students, it meant not having two nutritious meals each day,” Fanelli said, pointing out that schools and social services cannot be considered in isolation.
“You have to think holistically about these things,” she said. “Schools are more than just what happens in classrooms.”
The UCLA report also shows that a proportion of state residents receiving food stamps rose by 25% between September 2008 and September 2009.
“We think that even if it is only a grant cut (to CalWORKs), it will make more families poor, more children homeless and increase cost in foster care and other child welfare services,” asserted Herald.
The greatest increase in per capita use of the CalWORKs program has been in the Central Valley and the Inland Empire, where “poverty seems to be very intensely located,” he said. The Inland Empire community of San Bernardino has been one of the worst hit.
A principal in the Inland Empire, where foreclosure rates are as high as 1 in 33 homes, reported long wait times for families she referred to public agencies and nonprofits for support and help, according to the UCLA survey.
If the governor’s proposed cuts go through, WCLP estimates that 310,000, which is nearly one in three children on welfare, would lose all cash aid and end up homeless, like 224,000 of the state’s school children already are.
Hoping to prevent that, Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez and Senate President pro Tempore Darrel Steinberg headed to the nation’s capital last week to meet with Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius and congressional leaders to shake some federal dollars to close California’s budget deficit of around $19 billion. They are hoping that the state will get enough federal dollars before Schwarzenegger unveils his revised budget proposal May 14.
“ . . . . We must look to avoid draconian cuts this year if we expect to expedite California’s economic recovery or create more jobs for Californians,” noted Steinberg in a press release.
Many of the provisions in the national health care reform bill would make it illegal to make cuts proposed by the governor to Medi-Cal and the Children’s Health Insurance Program (known in California as Healthy Families). But “the extent to which health care reform will have a direct impact on his proposal to eliminate CalWORKs is not clear” at this time, observed Cathy Senderling, senior legislative advocate at County Welfare Directors Association of California.
That aside, since many provisions don’t take effect for a few more years, “I don’t see how they will help immediately,” Herald said.
A press release from Perez’s office May 5 indicates that he and Steinberg have “made progress on some key issues that will help the state budget,” and help California implement many of the key provisions of the health care reform bill.
VIJI SUNDARAM works as health care editor with New America Media in San Francisco, covering health issues in the immigrant communities. Her national expose in 2001 on McDonald’s use of beef in its french fries won her two investigative reporting awards.