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Child Poverty in Oakland Skyrockets

More than 27 percent of the city's kids live in households that earn less than $23,000

Nearly three of every ten children in Oakland is living in poverty, a more than 50 percent increase from just three years ago, according to data the U.S. Census Bureau released Tuesday.

In the Bay Area, the city has the highest percentage of children living in poverty.

The Census found Oakland’s school-aged children were particularly hard-hit by the recession, a development that educators say could have long-term impacts on their academic success.

“An increase in child poverty tends to lower achievement,” said Michael Kirst, a professor emeritus at Stanford University and the president of the State Board of Education.

“Poverty tends to lead to parents who have less time or less ability to help their children at home. It also leads, when poverty is concentrated in a certain area, to peer effects. If everybody is poor and nobody has role models of people who are making decent money, students start to question whether they can go to college and succeed," Kirst said.

The new report from the Census includes the number of children living in poverty in every county and school district in the U.S. It shows child poverty increased slightly in the past three years -- from 13 to 14 percent -- in San Francisco and from 11 to 16 percent in the San Jose Unified School District.

But it exploded from 18 to 28 percent in Oakland, increasing at a rate three times the national average.

“You see it every day in the classroom,” said Manny Lopez, who teaches 4th Grade at Jefferson Elementary in Fruitvale. 

Lopez said more students are coming to school without needed eyeglasses or with painful toothaches that prevent them from focusing on schoolwork.

The rise in the percentage of children in poverty comes as more middle class families flee Oakland for better schools and safer neighborhoods on the other side of the Caldecott Tunnel.

The number of school-aged children living in Oakland declined significantly over the past decade, the census shows -- from approximately 80,000 a decade ago to fewer than 60,000 in 2010, with 46,000 attending Oakland’s public schools.

“A lot of people in my classroom are moving away to Concord,” said Kay Swenson, who teaches kindergarten at Sankofa Academy near Bushrod Park in North Oakland.

What’s left are families that are too poor to move, she said, while the young, mostly-white professionals who are moving in to the neighborhood do not have children, or do not send their children to Oakland’s public schools.

The federal government set the poverty level at $22,113 for a four-person household that includes at least two people under 18. Analysts said it was almost almost impossible to raise a family on that in Alameda County.

According to an October report from the Insight Center, an Oakland think tank, the cost of basic expenses like rent, child care, and health insurance rose a combined 19 percent for Alameda County residents between 2008 and 2011, at precisely the moment that many Oaklanders lost their jobs.

“I can’t even imagine how a family could live on $22,000 a year. A lot of people are struggling,” said John Covert, who runs the Salvation Army's Oakland office, “part of it is that more and more families are coming to us.”

Covert said the Salvation Army now provides $40,000 a month to help needy Oakland families pay their utility bills, a ten-fold increase from before the recession began. The number of food baskets the group gives away in the East Bay away has increased 60 percent.

“We’re not just seeing stereotypical families, not just the perpetually homeless, but lower-middle class families that are struggling to make ends meet,” he said.

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