California Needs a State Budget That Protects Children From Poverty

A man walks beside a row of tents for the homeless in Los Angeles, Califorinia on May 12, 2015.   AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BRO
A man walks beside a row of tents for the homeless in Los Angeles, Califorinia on May 12, 2015. AFP PHOTO / FREDERIC J. BROWN (Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)

One in four children in California live in poverty. When you disaggregate children of color, 35 percent of African-American children and 38 percent of Latino children in California live in poverty. Approximately 490,000 Latino children and 30,000 African-American children in California are uninsured  --  half are boys. Those numbers are staggering, particularly when you consider that California has a $2.2 trillion economy, the seventh largest in the world. California's fiscal health is improving steadily with billions in additional tax revenues coming into the state.

Now is the time to take bold state action to invest in the whole child and begin to end child poverty -- that starts this budget year. We can ill afford to continue kicking the can down the road.

The state budget is a statement of our priorities and reflects a vision for the future. But more importantly the state budget is a reflection of our morals. It should represent a commitment to investing in the children and families who are often left behind: those who exist in the shadows simply struggling to place food on the table or maintain a roof over their heads.

Californians understand that investing in children is an investment in our future. Yet, we must turn rhetoric into action and dedicate the resources to make that investment in ways that will yield the outcomes we all hope for, including a dramatic reduction in the number of California children living in poverty.

The time for real action and commitment from our state leaders to ending child poverty is now --during final budget negotiations. While Governor Brown's proposed Earned Income Tax Credit for poor families is a positive first step to addressing child poverty, it's not nearly enough. As a state, we have a long way to go to ensure a level playing field for all California children. We need a bold, comprehensive approach. I propose the following to help us get there:

1. Ensure that California's low-income children have access to health coverage and care.

Poor children and children of color have worse access to health care and face critical health disparities, and as a result lag behind their wealthier and healthier white peers. More than 390,000 California children are uninsured, including 170,000 who are excluded from coverage due to their immigration status. And while more than half of California children have Medi-Cal coverage, many still face challenges in accessing the care they need. The alarming results of a recent state audit show that 56 percent of children in Medi-Cal did not receive any dental care last year.

California can take a significant step forward by enacting the Senate's proposal to invest $40 million to expand Medi-Cal coverage to children -- and some adults -- who are currently uninsured due to immigration status. State leaders must also address the children's dental access crisis by raising Medi-Cal payments to dentists to encourage more dentists to serve children in Medi-Cal.

2. Support our families to make sure they have the means to provide for the basic needs of their children.

Nearly 1 in 10 California children live in deep poverty (less than approximately 10,000 per year for family of 3). Unfortunately, California's basic needs assistance program, CalWORKs, has grant levels that are below the deep poverty threshold. State leaders should follow the Assembly's lead and provide $46 million to fund a cost-of-living adjustment for CalWORKs grants and $30 million to increase the CalWORKs Housing Support Program. California should also finally end the punitive Maximum Family Grant rule which pushes families with newborn babies deeper into poverty.

3. Invest in early care and education.

The early childhood years are the most critical period of development in a child's life, but one of the most under-funded areas in the budget. In fact, total state funding for child care and preschool is $1.1 billion below 2007-08 levels. The ECE years are also when we start seeing disparities between low-income children and children from high-income families, disparities that only grow as time goes on. Making high-quality child care available to families reduces child poverty by enabling parents to work and providing the stimulating learning environments that improve children's brain development and future academic success. The Senate and the Assembly, led by the Legislative Women's Caucus, have proposed significant new funding in child care and early learning that should be included in the final state budget.

Even as the California economy has grown, our state budgets have not made the necessary commitments to end the cycle of poverty and give children a strong foundation upon which to grow and succeed. Now is the time for us to put a down-payment on that commitment with a significant investment in the budget this year.

Research suggests that child poverty costs CA $66 billion/year in lost productivity and health and crime costs. Investments to reduce child poverty now pay for themselves by protecting children against the lifelong consequences and costs of poverty and reducing poverty in future generations. By not investing in our future, we are mortgaging it.

The Children's Defense Fund-California (CDF-CA) looks forward to working with our state leaders to end the brutal cycle of child poverty in California. It's clear we have our work cut out for us, and we know what we need to do. Gradualism is unacceptable. Together, we can chart a bold path forward and it begins with the state budget.

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Alex M. Johnson is the Executive Director of the Children's Defense Fund-California, a nonprofit child advocacy organization that works to ensure a level playing field for all children.