More than one-third of all students living within Fresno Unified’s boundaries come from poverty, the highest rate among the largest school districts in California, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
Additionally, the San Joaquin Valley is home to the highest concentration of districts whose poverty levels reach more than 40 percent. At Cutler-Orosi Joint Unified School District, for example, 49 percent of all students live in poverty, the fifth-highest rate in the state.
Starting at a disadvantage means that some kids never recover. Fresno Unified students who come from low-income backgrounds consistently show lower test scores than their better-off peers.
“By the time the kids come to us, the inequities are already in place,” Fresno Unified Superintendent Bob Nelson said. “They’ve heard fewer words, they’ve read fewer words. They have less access to everything, from literacy to support to nutrition.”
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Census data show that about 27,000 of the 5-to-17-year-olds living within the district’s borders come from families with incomes of less than $25,000 per year for a family of four. California Department of Education data show that nearly 90 percent of students at the district are eligible for free or reduced price meals, which the district offers to all students.
Alleviating childhood poverty is a “north star” for Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom, who has said he aims to end deep childhood poverty by the end of his first term. Deep poverty refers to the poorest 50 percent of individuals living below the poverty line, or about $12,500 per year for a family of four.
Nelson said an investment into early childhood education — like the universal preschool plan that Newsom has supported — would make an immediate impact on learning outcomes for low-income students.
“If I could send families (with newborns) home from Valley Children’s with flyers for Fresno Unified’s services, I would,” Nelson said. “Of course, the next consideration is that we’d eventually run out of money and classroom space.”
Is early childhood education the solution?
Increased early childhood education is also one of the recommendations from a statewide task force on childhood poverty, which looked for solutions that “directly and immediately reduce deep child poverty, have a foundational immediate and longer-term impact on disrupting the cycle of poverty, and have very substantial evidence in support of them or are innovative programs that have shown substantial promise.”
“Families need housing, food, and clothing to become stable, and then health care, education, child care, skills and economic opportunities to escape poverty and become economically mobile and independent,” says the report from the Lifting Children and Families Out of Poverty Task Force. “Providing only one, or even several, of these things, will not eliminate deep poverty or sustain a reduction.”
Brian King, director of the Fresno Economic Opportunities Commission’s Street Saints, is the lone representative from the San Joaquin Valley on the task force. The group’s 117-page report also emphasizes expanding quality child care and offering a tax credit per child for low-income families.
“It’s hard to read when you’re hungry, when you’re sleeping from couch to couch, or you’re not sure what’s going to happen to you,” King said. “They’re in survival mode.”
King said that preschool and child care are essential to a multi-generational solution to poverty that gives children a leg up while also helping their parents overcome barriers to economic opportunities.
“Speaking from lived experience, we often don’t realize we’re living in poverty because that’s just the way life is,” King said. “You have to put new information into the community and connect people to services.”
Ideally, families would be contacted before a child is even born, King said, in order to reduce the high rate of pre-term births in Fresno County.
The cost of these programs has led to hesitation from even the outgoing governor. Jerry Brown vetoed a universal preschool program in 2015, citing the expense.
Universal preschool could cost an estimated $8 billion per year, and the “priority recommendations” from the childhood poverty task force would cost $1.4 billion in 2019-20, $3.5 billion in 2020-21, and $5.6 billion in 2021-22.
But King said that previous attempts to address childhood poverty have sometimes missed the mark.
“It’s not just to throw money at the problem, but to throw it smarter,” King said.