More than a third of California’s roughly 39 million people are under 27 years old, three-quarters of them are nonwhite, and their families’ incomes are, for the most part, relatively low.
Children Now, a 33-year-old advocacy organization based in Oakland and led by former Assemblyman Ted Lempert, contends that the state is stingy when it comes to children’s wellbeing.
That’s the theme of Children Now’s latest version of its periodic scorecard on the state’s youth. It’s 107 pages of issue-by-issue data, grades and proposals for a “pro-kid agenda.”
“What’s particularly disturbing is that California continues to trail far behind other states on a number of important indicators of child wellbeing,” Lempert declares in the report. “Despite our relatively high tax burden, our progressive leanings, and our enviable 5th largest economy in the world, California is far from a leader when it comes to kids. That’s not only a threat to our state’s collective future, but to the entire country as well since California is so often a bellwether for the nation.”
The report lauds California for extending health care coverage to virtually all of its children, largely through expansion of Medi-Cal, and “progress towards providing all 4-year-olds in California access to a universal Transitional Kindergarten grade in public schools by the 2025-2026 school year.”
Children Now Gives Low Grades to California
However, Children Now gives C-minus or lower grades in nearly half of the 33 categories it evaluated, saying, “These low grades highlight where the state has allowed unacceptable racial and economic disparities to stagnate, and in many cases grow.”
The data are impressive, drawn from dozens of public and private sources, and mirrors both previous Children Now studies and other reports about the “California Divide,” so dubbed by CalMatters, in a series of articles.
For at least a half-century, California has been evolving into a two-tier society, a mostly white and Asian overclass and a mostly Black and Latino underclass with strata defined by ethnicity, educational attainment, homeownership, family income, and wealth.
The evolution is rooted in California’s diverse economy, overlaid by waves of immigration from other nations. It handsomely rewards technical expertise and entrepreneurial endeavor but also needs large amounts of low-wage labor.
The Children Now report card essentially holds state government accountable for the deficiencies it cites.
“Today’s governor and Legislature didn’t create this grim picture for kids, but they need to do more to address it,” Lempert said.
More Funding Needed, Child Advocates Say
So what would it take to fix the dozens of disparities Children Now has cataloged? Money, it says, and lots of it — tens or even hundreds of billions of dollars. Education would be one of the most expensive segments of the “pro-kid agenda.”
“California’s education system performs far below the national average and ranks 43rd of 50 states for outcome gaps by race and ethnicity,” the report declared. It laments that California spends less than 3% of its economic output on public schools while other large states spend relatively more. Just meeting the national average of 3.6% would cost California taxpayers another $23 billion a year.
Similarly large amounts would be needed to fully finance the Children Now agenda in other areas, such as expanding income supports for poor families.
The report is being issued just a few days before Gov. Gavin Newsom proposes a 2024-25 budget with an immense deficit: $68 billion, according to the Legislature’s budget analyst.
Given that California faces such a huge gap even with one of the nation’s highest levels of taxation, Children Now’s agenda, however sincerely advanced, is highly unlikely to be adopted. It would be fortunate to escape severe cuts in the programs and services it holds dear.
About the Author
Dan Walters has been a journalist for nearly 60 years, spending all but a few of those years working for California newspapers. He began his professional career in 1960, at age 16, at the Humboldt Times. CalMatters is a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s state Capitol works and why it matters. For more columns by Dan Walters, go to calmatters.org/commentary.
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