Children Are Invisible Victims of California's Tanking Economy

Children Are Invisible Victims of California's Tanking Economy

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The dual problems of housing instability and joblessness are negatively affecting the well-being of California’s children, according to a new report released Wednesday.

One million children in the state -- or 7 percent -- have been impacted by foreclosure since 2007, according to figures taken from the 2011 Kids Count Data Book, a project of the Annie E. Casey Foundation. Only three states have higher rates than California, including Nevada (13 percent), Florida (10 percent) and Arizona (8 percent). The figures exclude children living in rental units, whose families may have been affected.

The report also found that children in California are paying a price due to a grim job market. About 1.2 million children in the state now have at least one unemployed parent, and about one-third of all children statewide have no parent with a full time, year-round job.

The data comes in the midst of an unprecedented housing crisis in California, in which 1.2 million homeowners have lost their homes in the last three years. The state has the second highest unemployment rate in the nation at 11.8 percent, compared to the national rate of 9.2 percent. At the same time, the state is considering more spending cuts to balance the budget, which could further erode government safety nets for children, including early childhood education, child care and health care programs.

Jessica Dalesandro Mindnich, associate director of Children Now, the California affiliate of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, says the report highlights the importance of preserving those safety net programs, and others like them, in California.

The state needs to make sure “we are not letting these kids fall through the cracks when they are particularly vulnerable,” Mindnich said.

Maeve Elise Brown, director of Oakland-based Housing and Economic Rights Advocates (HERA), a statewide nonprofit legal service and advocacy organization that served 1,600 homeowners last year, called the numbers “staggering” and “shocking.”

Brown says that policymakers haven’t adequately responded to the foreclosure crisis. The report, she says, shows that “housing stability” should be a priority because of the key role it plays in ensuring the well-being of California’s children.

“Housing stability has a significant effect on children’s ability to do well in school and potential for success as they grow up and become adults, so the implications from this report are really distressing,” she said.

Robbie Clark, lead organizer with Causa Justa/Just Cause, a housing rights group that assists residents in Oakland and San Francisco, says the report helps to elucidate a little-covered topic.

“The impact of housing instability on children in general is something that is pretty invisible,” said Clark, who added that he wasn’t surprised by the number of children impacted by foreclosure and in fact believed the number is an undercount.

“If you also add the tenant aspect, you would see almost a doubling of that number,” he said, noting that 40 percent of the units in foreclosure in California are tenant-occupied.

Brown of HERA says the stress of dealing with foreclosures wreaks havoc on family life. Stress levels are extremely high, Brown says, as parents are working multiple jobs to bring in more income. Among the clients she has counseled, she says she has seen a lot of “family break-ups,” whether divorces or separations, as kids get sent to live with relatives or friends.

“We know that the kids must be feeling the effects of what their parents are going through,” Brown said.

The social ripple effects of the foreclosure crisis on children are still not well known, Clark said. For example, how it affects school enrollment and student homelessness, particularly in neighborhoods with high concentrations of foreclosures.

For Brown, addressing housing instability goes hand in hand with job creation and economic development.

“If you don’t have a safe roof over your head, you can’t think about stable employment. You don’t have an address for employers to contact you at, [and] it’s hard to maintain your appearance to present yourself to employers,” she said. “The state needs to elevate this to be a number-one issue to work on.”

The report highlights changes in child well-being in the last decade, tracking 10 key indicators, including infant birth weight, infant mortality, child death rate, and teen birth rate.