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August 30, 2022

student in library
By Kevin Zwick
CEO, United Way Bay Area
3 minute read

This month, thousands of Bay Area students return to school. It’s an exciting time for both children and parents, but it won’t be without its challenges. Right now, California school districts are facing staff shortages, school closures, and continued uncertainty as they rebound from disruptions caused by COVID-19. Many students are also struggling to catch up on progress lost during the early days of the pandemic. For instance, a recent performance analysis by the San Francisco Unified School District found that only 58% of students were proficient in reading last year, with systemic inequities causing outcomes to vary by race – the figure was only 34% for Latinos and just 9% for Black students.

At United Way Bay Area, we recognize that many of these issues disproportionately impact low-income students and their families, who already face barriers to receiving a high-quality and undisrupted education. We also know that education is one of the most effective ways to combat poverty and create opportunity in the long term. For these reasons, we are committed to helping students as part of our mission to dismantle the root causes of poverty and build equitable pathways to prosperity.

Here are some of our initiatives that seek to help students facing financial hardship:

Annual Backpack Drive:

It’s no secret that living in the Bay Area is expensive, and nearly a third of families are struggling to get by. In the Silicon Valley region, for instance, 46% of children — disproportionately children of color — live in households that don’t earn enough income to cover basic needs, according to the Silicon Valley Pain Index. For these families, back-to-school shopping can bring added financial strain.
Every year, UWBA hosts a Back-To-School drive to gather essential backpacks and school supplies to help prepare youth who can’t afford them for the new school year. This year, we continued our collaboration with sponsors, partners, and volunteers to safely collect and distribute over 1,000 backpacks to Bay Area students who need them. This way, more of our community’s children can be prepared with the right supplies for a successful school year.

SparkPoint Community College Centers:

Post-secondary schools in California, particularly the state’s community colleges, are facing a litany of challenges including declining enrollment and low completion rates. Many of these indicators are worse for students of color, low-income students, and first-generation college students. Financial hardship is one reason for these struggles: in a 2019 survey of California community college students, 60% of respondents had experienced housing insecurity in the previous year, and 50% had experienced food insecurity in the prior 30 days.

United Way Bay Area’s SparkPoint centers are at the center of our anti-poverty work, and many of them are located on community college campuses. This provides students with access to a full range of services related to managing credit, increasing income and savings, and decreasing debt. In our 2021 fiscal year, 8,279 people received SparkPoint services, and 83% of SparkPoint clients made progress on the financial goals they set. We also found that community college students engaged with SparkPoint were more likely to continue and finish their community college studies than students who were not.

Advocating for change:

One of our poverty-fighting strategies is to take part in long-term systems change though public policy advocacy. Our policy agenda aligns to provide greater support to our impact areas including meeting basic needs, financial stability, workforce development, and housing justice.

Earlier this year, I argued in the San Francisco Chronicle that child poverty is a policy choice, with proven solutions. To help the millions of children living in poverty in California, we could implement the expansion of support programs including the Earned Income and Young Child tax credits, which delivered $1 billion to 4.3 million low-income people in California last year.

While students across the state continue to face challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, poverty-fighting initiatives like these can help ease the burden and create equitable pathways to prosperity as they return to school this fall.