The economic downturn has hit children hard. New estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau show the number of school-age children living in poverty in California swelled by 30 percent from 2007 to 2010.
That grim reality is being felt across the nation, where the number of poor children from age 5 to 17 grew by nearly 2 million during that time, to 20 percent.
"That fact alone is overwhelming," said Eric McDonnell, chief operating officer for United Way of the Bay Area, which aims to cut poverty in half by 2020.
The trend could have far-reaching and long-term effects. Educators and researchers say that when children come to school hungry or without a stable home, they often struggle to focus on their work and fall behind. Some kids, after a prolonged period of instability, develop what early childhood experts call "toxic stress," which can trigger long-term memory loss and other cognitive problems, as well as hypertension and other stress-related diseases.
"The more that families are struggling and experiencing this poverty, the more likely they are to be experiencing these stresses," said Christopher Wimer, associate director of the Stanford Center for the Study of Poverty and Inequality. "I think it's very worrisome, honestly, because there's a lot of research that shows the challenge of providing a good education to kids in poverty."
In 2010, the counties of Alameda, Contra Costa, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara, Santa Cruz and Solano were home to nearly 137,000 poor children between the ages of 5 and 17 -- roughly 28,600 more than in 2007, before the recession began, according to the estimates.
The federal poverty line for a family of four is about $22,000. The official poverty figures used for this report do not take into account Earned Income Tax Credits or food stamps a family might receive.
Alameda and Santa Cruz counties had the highest school-age poverty rates in the Bay Area, at 17 percent and 18 percent, respectively. In Santa Clara County, the number of poor schoolchildren grew by 40 percent in just three years to just more than 38,000.
"They're going to come to us much more needy," said Charles Weis, superintendent of schools for Santa Clara County. He added, "The growing number of children living in poverty is, I suggest, one of the most important issues in the state."
The census report broke down the numbers by school district boundary, as well as by county. In Oakland, the percentage of school-age children in poor families rose from 20 to 28 percent from 2007 to 2010. The affluent districts of Piedmont in Alameda County and the San Ramon Valley in Contra Costa County also saw a sharp upswing in the number of poor children living within their attendance boundaries, though their poverty rates remained low.
McDonnell said districts that haven't historically faced much student poverty might soon be confronted with some of its "ripple effects," such as inattention, poor attendance and high mobility. He pointed to Oakland Unified's emerging "community schools" strategy as a promising model for supporting families. The district has formed partnerships with local organizations, agencies and businesses to meet some of their student's out-of-school needs, including health care.
Because most of the nation's children attend public schools, he said, his organization is trying to generate more community support for public education. McDonnell said he hopes such efforts will help to break the poverty cycle -- one that, in some cases, is just beginning.
The U.S. Census Bureau has released estimates of school-age children in poverty in 2010. The numbers are available by county and school district boundary.
To access the data files, go to the U.S. Census Bureau's site at www.census.gov and look for the report "Small Area Income and Poverty Estimates." Or go to www.census.gov/did/www/saipe/index.html.
Increase in number of school-age
children in poverty in seven Northern California counties from 2007 to 2010.