As the economy recovers from the Great Recession, the gap between rich and poor is widening, leaving poor families and individuals further behind. This is true in Contra Costa County, where nearly 200,000 Contra Costa residents live in poverty and even more struggle to make ends meet.

In a county with a median annual income of $78,000, you might be surprised to learn that:

  • More than 65,000 families and individuals receive CalFresh (food stamps); half are children, many are seniors and most are working. 48,000 more are eligible, but not enrolled.
  • The Food Bank serves 149,000 people every month.
  • On any given night, 4,000 individuals and families seek shelter, yet there are only 382 beds available in homeless shelters. One-third of the homeless are children.

Poverty is hard for everyone but particularly toxic to children, who account for 20% of Contra Costa’s low-income population. When babies and toddlers are raised in poverty, they are much more likely to experience excessive, traumatic stress that interrupts healthy brain development. This disadvantage starts early and sticks.

Children born into poverty are less likely to graduate from high school or work as adults and more likely to develop chronic health problems as adults and live shorter lives. While loving, caring parents do help mitigate some of the effects of growing up poor, our children deserve more.

It’s time to address the structural issues and barriers that keep people poor, such as high housing and child care costs, low-wage jobs, and confusing public benefit eligibility requirements. The reality is many people work; they just don’t earn enough to escape the intractable reality of poverty.

For example, a single parent with two children with a minimum wage job earns only $18,720 a year, less than the federal poverty measure for a family this size, which is $19,530. No one working full-time on minimum wage should fall below the federal poverty level. But they do.

State, county and local efforts are underway to address poverty barriers, such as SB 935 (Leno), which would raise the minimum wage in California to $13 per hour by 2017. In addition, Santa Clara County and the City of Richmond are considering local living wage ordinances. The effect of a wage increase on children can be profound. Studies have shown that when a poor family’s income increases by just $3,000, their children do better in school and end up earning more as adults.

A new campaign called Ensuring Opportunity is launching in Contra Costa County to cut poverty. The campaign is led by the county’s Family Economic Security Partnership, the Safety Net Task Force, and faith-based and nonprofit groups with the goal of raising awareness and building a network of committed agencies, constituents and community members to support programs and policies that address poverty. Learn more about joining this effort.

Poverty is not a natural state, like the weather. Poverty is severe and long lasting. The widespread poverty we have today is the result of human decisions and policy choices. It’s time for us to make different choices and do all we can to make sure our youngest children don’t grow up shaped by the consequences of poverty.

To learn more about the Ensuring Opportunity campaign, please contact Fran Biderman (925) 771-7331.

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