Many reacted with disbelief, others with dismay, at last month’s assertions by Chad Mayes, California Republican Assembly leader, that California has “the highest poverty rate in the nation.”
According to Politifact California, “The Supplemental Poverty Measure, which does account for cost-of-living, including taxes, housing and medical costs … is considered by researchers a more accurate reflection of poverty.” Using this measure from the U.S. Census Bureau, California has the highest poverty rate at 20.6 percent, with Florida close behind at 19 percent.
This comes as no surprise to our United Way. According to a 2015 study of poverty in our region by the Corporation for Enterprise Development, nearly half of the residents in our five-county region do not have enough money saved to live at the poverty level for three months should they lose their income. The corporation also found that 63 percent of high school graduates are likely to be asset poor. Students who have an associate’s degree or just some college are twice as likely to be asset poor as those with a bachelor’s degree.
On its face, this strong correlation between education and poverty seems like a simple problem to solve. If kids would just go to school every day, stay on track and set high expectations for their success, they will be less likely to be poor. It is easier said than done for families who live day to day without the resources they need, including access to high-quality preschool, healthy food, health care, stable housing and employment that pays them a living wage.
We as a state and nation cannot begin to solve the issue of poverty unless we look at the systemic and intergenerational factors that are working in tandem to create the problem, and figure out how to address those factors collectively and concurrently over time. No one organization or institution can solve this problem alone. It takes a long-term investment of resources to yield outcomes, a high degree of trust among stakeholders from government, school districts, business and the nonprofit sector, and willingness to fail together as well as succeed. It also requires a clear-eyed view of what children and families need in order to thrive and contribute to the vitality of this region.
To address poverty in our region, United Way’s Square One Project is working to create “community hubs” inside schools or community centers, providing user-friendly places for youths and families to get connected to resources, referrals and services that strengthen families and neighborhoods. These hubs will give children and adults access to a wide variety of services including preventive health services, social services, grade-level literacy support, financial coaching, free tax preparation and GED classes, and access to housing and employment resources.
When a family’s needs are met, kids have a stronger support system and are more likely to have better attendance, stay on track and meet high expectations for academic achievement, which means they are more likely to graduate from high school prepared for their future, which could include college or vocational and technical career training. Additionally, if we engage the community in the solution, we will create lasting, systemic changes that will not only break the cycle of poverty, they will transform those communities for generations to come.
Stephanie McLemore Bray is president and CEO of United Way California Capital Region and can be contacted at Stephanie.Bray@uwccr.org. Thomas Bennett is senior vice president of programs at United Way California Capital Region and can be contacted at Tom.firstname.lastname@example.org.