Help for families going through tough times

Child with Small BikeRaising families’ income is a key strategy for improving the lives—and life chances—of young children. We Americans like to believe that all kids have an equal chance to succeed. But in reality, “hundreds of studies have documented the association between family poverty and children’s health, achievement, and behavior,” wrote education professors Jeanne Brooks-Gunn and Greg J. Duncan in Future of Children. And “more than a decade of research shows that increasing the incomes of low-income families—without any other changes—can positively affect child development, especially for younger children,” according to 2007 Congressional testimony by Jane Knitzer, director of the National Center for Children in Poverty. “Money matters for child development.” Why? According to a study by Brooks-Gunn, Jean Yeung, and Miriam Livner, higher income improves children’s learning because it enables their parents to provide “better living conditions and learning materials . . . adequate food, and . . . high-quality child care.” More income improves children’s emotional development, on the other hand, because it relieves pressures that make parents “more likely to be emotionally distressed, less supportive, and to use punishment such as spanking.”

Money matters more for children with less

When family income increased, children were better able to identify colors, letters and shapes, and knew more words. When a family of four living in poverty saw an increase of $13,400 over three years, for example, children scored as well as those in families with twice the income. This 2001 study tracked 1,216 low-income families with young children for three years and looked at how children performed on cognitive tests as family income changed.

Lifetime costs of early childhood poverty

Eliminating early childhood poverty would boost the lifetime earnings of an individual by (from) $53,000 to nearly $100,000, and reduce the risk for incarceration and dependence on programs like food stamps or welfare. This 2005 study of data on individuals from childhood to adulthood looked at the relationships between childhood family income and adult outcomes, such as earnings, completed schooling, crime, and health.

EITC boosts student test scores

For each $1,000 increase in a family’s annual income, the children’s math scores went up by 2.1% percent, reading scores by 3.6%. This 2005 study of 6,000 families over two decades compared increases in family income through the Earned Income Tax Credit and their children’s reading and math test scores.

More money for moms, more successful kids

When poor mothers had more money—whether from earnings or cash payments—their kids did better in school. They repeated grades less frequently and had fewer behavioral troubles. This 2002 study compared Minnesota welfare families that got additional cash incentives with those that did not.


Children PlayingLast year, Dawn Baxter, a single mother of three, was desperate to keep her family above water. “I lost everything in about five weeks: my house, my job, broke up with my boyfriend,” she says. But then CPS put her in touch with her local family resource center. “They saved my life,” she says enthusiastically. “My case manager helped me get a house, credit counseling, clothes for my kids. He taught me how to advocate for the kids and myself.”

In these difficult times, there are resources to help families stay afloat:

  • Family Resource Centers: offer services (and referrals to other resources) for families in need.


  • Housing and Urban Development (HUD) offers a directory of housing counseling services
  • Foreclosure help: ACORN
  • Tenant’s rights help: Bay Area: Just Cause; Sacramento: Human Rights Fair Housing; Los Angeles: Housing Authority counseling hotline; San Diego: Tenants Legal Center;


  • Unemployment insurance: available if you have been laid off or had your hours cut back and meet minimum previous earnings requirements.
  • Employment Development Department

Emergency cash aid

  • CalWORKs diversion program: up to $3000 to help people get or keep a job by paying for child care, car repair, rent, utilities, etc.


  • Food stamps: If you are a citizen or “qualified immigrant.” Children under 18 may be eligible if their household income is under 130% of the poverty level ($27,560 for a family of four). Contact your county welfare department
  • California Association of Food Banks offers a statewide directory of food banks for households earning less than 130% of the poverty level
  • Women, Infants, and Children: special checks to buy healthy foods. For pregnant or breastfeeding women and children under five, with family income 185% or less of the poverty level ($39,220 for a family of four).
  • Free and reduced-priced school lunches: if your family’s income is up to 185% of the poverty level or you get food stamps or CalWORKs benefits. Contact your child’s school

Health insurance

  • Free and low-cost state health insurance (Medi-Cal and Healthy Families): If you are a citizen or “qualified immigrant.” Children may be eligible in families earning up to 250% of the poverty level ($53,000 for a family of four)

Tax credits

  • Earned income tax credit: refundable federal income tax credit up to $4700 for people who earned up to $42,000 in 2007 (depending on family size). You don’t have to be a citizen. Volunteer income tax assistance (VITA) available free.
  • Help Hotline: 211 (available in 19 counties)