Child Poverty in California Dropped to a Historic Low in Fall 2021

Percentage of Children Ages 0 to 17 Living in Poverty, According to the California Poverty Measure: Fall 2021

Bar chart showing the percentage of children ages 0-17 living in poverty in fall 2021, according to the California Poverty Measure, for California and selected counties.

Guest author Patricia Malagon.

Patricia Malagon, guest author from the Public Policy Institute of California, discusses recent key findings about poverty and safety net supports in the context of California’s economic and policy environment.

The California Poverty Measure (CPM), a decade-long partnership between the Public Policy Institute of California and the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality, provides a state-specific measure of who lacks resources to meet basic needs, accounting for local differences in both the cost of living and safety net resources across the state.

The most recent version of the CPM updated our methodology to address data collection challenges and the rapidly changing policy environment during the COVID-19 pandemic. The fall 2021 CPM offers a more complete picture of poverty by projecting annual poverty rates into fall 2021 using 2019 CPM data. Our previous method was to use the most recent available data, which would have been data for 2020, but we recognized that economic and policy conditions in 2020 were so unique that data for fall 2021 could be more useful for informing policymaking. As a result, the updated CPM captures economic and safety net policy conditions in fall 2021.

We find that the statewide CPM poverty rate among Californians of all ages fell from 16.4% in 2019 to 11.7% in fall 2021. While the CPM is not directly comparable with other poverty measures, related measures find similar trends. The Supplemental Poverty Measure, which is similar to the CPM but provides a generalized method applicable to all states, shows a drop from 17.2% in 2017-2019 to 13.2% in 2019-2021. In contrast, the federal official poverty measure, which does not reflect the role of safety net programs, finds a much smaller drop in poverty over the same period (from 11.4% to 11%). An important difference between these measures and the CPM is that they refer to a three-year average for 2019-2021, while the CPM reflects conditions in fall 2021.

Children ages 0 to 17 saw the largest decline in poverty among age groups, according to the CPM; rates dropped by more than half between 2017-2019 and fall 2021, from 18.6% to 9%. This means that about 870,000 fewer California children were living on annual resources below the CPM poverty line ($36,900 statewide for a family of four that rents). Among children living in deep poverty, the share fell from 3.9% to 1.7%, translating to about 200,000 fewer children living on family resources less than half of the CPM poverty line.

California’s substantial regional differences in cost of living drive differences in child poverty around the state. Counties with the highest child poverty rates in fall 2021 were Orange (12.4%) and Los Angeles (10.1%), while Sacramento had the lowest rate (6.7%). Across legislative districts, child poverty varied widely, from 2.9% to 17.4%.

Safety net programs, most of which focus on children, reduced child poverty by nearly 20 percentage points in fall 2021. Without the combined safety net—including cash, nutrition supports, tax credits, and housing subsidies—the child poverty rate would have been more than three times higher (28.7%) statewide, amounting to around 1.7 million more children without adequate resources to meet their basic needs. The expanded federal child tax credit (CTC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (CalFresh) were the main drivers of this reduction; the expanded CTC alone reduced child poverty by 4.3 percentage points (7.4 percentage points when taken together with the Young Child Tax Credit and federal and state earned income tax credits), while CalFresh alone accounted for a reduction of 4.6 points.

Most pandemic-era policy expansions have now expired, including the expanded CTC and CalFresh emergency allotments. Because a wide range of federal and state responses kept many families and children out of poverty during the pandemic, poverty has likely increased in 2023. This fall, PPIC and Stanford will update the CPM to reflect poverty in the first quarter of 2023.

Read more from PPIC on poverty and inequality in California.

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