Photo by Ann Bassette, New America Media

The Hernandez children, Jose, 10, and Yarixa, 4, are among the many in California with limited access to healthy foods as their parents struggle to make ends meet.

California: 2 million kids in poverty

Friday, September 16th, 2011 

The Investigative Reporting Workshop and New America Media co-published stories about the poverty rate and the working poor.

New America Media

EAST PALO ALTO, Calif. — Once a week, Altagracia Hernandez boards a bus near her tiny two-bedroom apartment in East Palo Alto, Calif., and heads to the Ecumenical Hunger Program on Puglas Road to stock up on a three-day supply of canned foods and fresh produce.

If money is really tight, as it often is, Hernandez, 37, does the two-mile trip on foot — pushing her shopping cart.

There’s not much left for food, let alone bus fare, from her husband Joe’s job as a parking attendant in San Mateo, after paying the $1,500 rent for the apartment in this largely Hispanic neighborhood. The local St. Vincent de Paul Society supplements the hunger program's handouts.

Going to bed hungry

Hernandez said she tries to make sure that her children never go to bed hungry, but she doesn’t always succeed.

“There are times when I’ve had to say there’s not enough food tonight,” Hernandez said softly, as her two younger children, Jose, 10, and Yarixa, 4, sat by her side, munching on snacks they had just picked up at the hunger program.

The Hernandez family is a part of the growing number of Californians in poverty hit by the economic downturn. U.S. Census figures released this week indicate that more than 6 million people in the Golden State, more than 2 million of them children, lived in poverty last year, an increase for the sixth straight year.

“These new data provide a sobering portrait of the economic hardship facing millions of Californians, observed David Zingale, senior vice president of The California Endowment, a nonprofit that is trying to improve the health of Californians. “They show how far we’ve fallen from the Clinton era of prosperity.”

Data from a Gallup survey released three weeks ago by the Food Research and Action Center show that one in four California families lack enough money to buy food at times for themselves or their families. The poll also revealed that of the top 20 metropolitan areas in the nation facing food hardship, four are in California.

Last year, more than 16 percent of Californians lived below the federal poverty line of $10,830 for an individual and $22,050 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census. That is greater than the national level of 15 percent, among the highest in recent decades.

More than one out of five Californians under age 65 (21.4 percent) lacked health coverage in 2010, up from 19.6 percent in 2006. The share of Californians below 65 with job-based health insurance was 52.9 percent last year, down from 56.4 percent in 2006.

Although eight in nine of the state’s children have health insurance coverage, among the 11 percent not covered, California has 773,000 uninsured children living in low-income families (below 200 percent of the federal poverty level). That represents one of seven low-income, uninsured children nationally.

Also, between 2009 and 2010, there was a slight uptick in the number of uninsured children in California, from just under a million to slightly more than a million — a rise of 42,000.

Between 2007 and 2010, nearly a half million fewer children in California (449,000) had private health insurance, and about 600,000 more children relied on public coverage such as Medicaid, according to the just-released U.S. Census data.

Lack of insurance drives more into poverty

Hernandez’s three children are on the Healthy Families program — a health insurance program for low-income children. Her husband has insurance through his job, but she has none and goes to a neighborhood community health clinic when she is sick.

She is among the state’s nearly 7 million uninsured — the largest number of any state. That number is “driving more and more families into poverty,” said the endowment's Zingale.

“But there is hope on the horizon. The number of insured will increase as the [Affordable Care Act] takes effect,” Zingale said, referring to the new health care reform law. “That will bring down the cost for all of us.”

Through a series of ethnic media briefings, The California Endowment has spearheaded efforts to make ethnic communities in California more aware of the new health care reform law signed into law by President Obama. It will provide health insurance for the country’s legal residents. (In the interest of full disclosure: The endowment funded New America Media to organize those briefings.)

Concerned by drastic cut in California’s census outreach budget — from $25 million in 2000 to $2 million in 2010 — The California Endowment fund invested $4 million in U.S. Census outreach to hard-to-count communities so that the state’s underserved population would not be undercounted. Government agencies use census figures to determine the budget allocations for service programs. More than 20 other funders matched the endowment's investment with contributions totaling more than $5 million.

On a recent day, families at the Ecumenical Hunger Program Center quickly snapped up loaves of bread donated by food banks and left on shelves outside the center’s front door. Some family members then checked at the front desk to see if blankets, backpacks or furniture they had requested came in.

The center has seen a significant rise in clients in the last four years, from 3,707 in 2008 to 4,507 so far this year.

“In recent years, we have seen more people coming in more frequently,” said Leisa Preston, the program's executive director.

A food desert

To make matters worse for East Palo Alto residents, the city is a food desert — a place where access to healthy foods such as fruits and vegetables is either limited, too expensive or even non-existent. The nonprofit Collective Roots recently launched a community farmers’ market.

When the food she collects from the the hunger program and St. Vincent de Paul Society runs out, the nearby Taco Bell and McDonald’s are sometimes the only affordable places to satisfy the Hernandez’s kids’ hunger — possibly one of the reasons why her two younger children have been diagnosed as obese. On the children’s pediatrician’s advice, she and her kids will soon begin classes at the obesity prevention program at Stanford University.

Hernandez said she is always looking for sales in the one supermarket the town opened last year.

Outside her home is a large bin filled with empty plastic bottles and soda cans. Hernandez said she collects these from neighbors’ trash cans and sells them in a recycling store to supplement her husband Joe’s $1,800 monthly income. Some weekends, Joe changes the oil on his neighbor’s cars and does other odd jobs for them to make extra money.

But despite the couple’s best efforts to keep their refrigerator well stocked, there are days when there’s “just not enough food,” Hernandez said.

“I would like to give them more fruits and vegetables, but that’s not always possible,” she said.




What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele are revisiting America: What Went Wrong, their landmark 1991 newspaper series, in a new project with the Investigative Reporting Workshop. Over the next year, the project team will examine how four decades of public policy has shaped America's ongoing economic crisis.


Back Story

The authors talk about What Went Wrong

Donald Barlett and James Steele talk about the project, and why they decided to revisit a book they wrote two decades ago, in a series of video clips produced by the Workshop.

Nation's Story

Who pays the taxes?

Who pays the taxes?

We feature charts, maps, photos and other visualizations that reflect the state of the economy as part of our What Went Wrong project. This column chart shows the growing disparity between what individuals and corporations pay in taxes. In the 1950s, the difference was 22 percent. Recent figures show the difference is 62 percent.

Rags to rags: Economic mobility hard to come by

New Pew Center on States report confirms that moving up the American economic ladder is difficult, even though most people have more income than their parents.

Homelessness takes it toll on Florida's youngest

Florida, as a center of the housing boom, still struggles to recover from the Great Recession. Financial stresses and widespread foreclosures have placed families in precarious situations, resulting in a spike in child homelessness. Susannah Nesmith reports in the Broward Bulldog.

Older workers face challenges in Silicon Valley

An advanced degree and experience in the tech sector should be a ticket to a job in today's economy. But older workers in the heart of the new economy, Silicon Valley, are finding their resume is not the issue. Aaron Glantz reports in The Bay Citizen.

 Subscribe to the RSS Feed

Read an Excerpt

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

The Betrayal of the American Dream on Google Books

Check out the first chapter of Barlett and Steele's 2012 book here.