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Dear Governor X: Please Help Children Who Are Trapped in a State of Neglect : California: There's no need for more pilot programs for youngsters, rather a new pilot with a strong but caring hand at the helm.

October 28, 1990|James P. Steyer and Wendy Lazarus | James P. Steyer is president and Wendy Lazarus vice president for policy of Children Now, a California-based policy and advocacy organization

A junior-high school girl only came to classes every other day. She and her mother had so little money, she told a counselor, that they had to share one pair of shoes. Every other day, the mother wore the shoes to look for work; on the other days, the daughter wore them to school.

This young girl and the nearly eight million other children in California won't be voting Nov. 6. Yet they have an enormous stake in the priorities set by the state's next chief executive. Over the past 10 years, the quality of life for many California children has significantly eroded even as other states have been improving conditions for families. The next governor of California has a unique opportunity to learn from these other states and to act decisively for children.

Once, California was hailed as the nation's leader on children's issues. But today, the comparisons are mostly negative: highest teen-pregnancy rate, highest rate of juveniles in custody, next-to-worst in classroom overcrowding. Nearly one-third of California students drop out or do not finish high school on time; one-fifth of its young children grow up in poverty.

There is no great mystery about turning these trends around. Strong leadership combined with sound public policy can make a profound difference. We do not need new studies or pilot programs. We do need the leadership of a new pilot at the helm. While it is encouraging that children's issues are being discussed in the campaigns, that is only the first step.

Since California's next generation can't vote, we are offering the new governor a three-part plan on the children's behalf. Coupled with other steps during the governor's four-year term, this plan would help millions of children and produce long-term reform.

Step One: Prevention. The new governor should radically alter California's approach to helping children by focusing on early preventive programs, not costly remedies.

Such preventive investments include preschool education, child care and early health and nutrition services and more effective education. These steps help children grow up avoiding crime, drug use and welfare dependence.

For example, early health care for pregnant women and their children is one of the most effective ways to prevent health and learning problems as youngsters grow up. But one in every four pregnant women receives no prenatal care or receives it too late to be beneficial. More than half of California's young children are not fully immunized. One in five has no health insurance. This, despite the fact that $1 invested in prenatal care saves more than $3 in children's medical care later, and $1 invested in immunizations saves $10 later.

The new governor can lead our state in establishing a comprehensive children's health program--one that reaches every pregnant woman with prenatal and delivery care and every child with needed immunizations, health check-ups and treatment for medical needs. This is not an impossible dream: Statewide public health programs that California can emulate are already operating.

For example, Minnesota instituted a comprehensive program for uninsured children two years ago. Already about half the eligible children have been enrolled; nearly every physician and dentist will serve them. The Minnesota Children's Health Plan provides uninsured children up to the age of 8 with preventive services, most out-patient treatment, routine mental health services and dental and eye care. The program is financed by state funds. Parents pay an annual premium of $25 per child.

Step Two: Priorities. The new governor should focus on the fundamental problems facing children and families, not just on cosmetic solutions.

For example, a child's well-being depends to a great degree on the family's financial stability. With half of our children likely to live with just one parent at some point in their lives, child support payments from the absent father or mother are increasingly important to children's financial security. Yet in 1988, a bare minimum of $366 million in child support payments--more than half the awards courts ordered--went uncollected in California. In addition, California stands to lose millions of dollars in federal funds annually as penalties for this poor performance. Again, this dismal record exists despite the fact that every $1 invested by the state in child support enforcement saves roughly $3.70 in welfare costs.

Other states are already taking bold steps to improve their collections of child-support money. Wisconsin, for example, has established uniform guidelines for determining support orders, automatically withholds child-support payments from the wages of the absent parent and plans to provide a state allowance for the child if parental income and child support are not sufficient.

Step Three: Performance. The new governor should institute a comprehensive approach to children's needs.

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