A dramatic upswing in the number of children in California growing up in extreme poverty is documented in a report issued Thursday by a children's advocacy group, which also found disturbing increases in the statewide rate of juvenile incarcerations, child abuse reports, foster care placements and teen-age pregnancies.
The report prepared by the nonprofit "Children Now" compares how children have fared in each of California's 58 counties and ranks Los Angeles, Riverside and San Bernardino counties in the bottom 10. Overall, the state was given a symbolic "D" for the way it has cared for its children. This grade--given now for the third year in a row--"represents a ticking time bomb and should be taken as a strong warning sign," according to the report.
San Diego County children fared better than the state average in nine of 10 "benchmark" categories, including the high school dropout rate, infant mortality, violent crime, births to unmarried teen-agers and collection of child support payments.
But the county was in worse shape than the state average in terms of how many children are in foster care homes, ranking 39th out of the 46 counties listed. Last year, more than 6,800 children--11.2 for every 1,000 children in the county--were in some form of out-of-home residential care.
The study also found a 57% jump in the number of children living in extreme poverty in San Diego County between 1980 and 1990, placing the county alongside 39 other counties where there was at least a 50% increase.
San Diego has the second-largest number of children of the state's 58 counties. They constitute 24% of the population, and 47% are nonwhite--a higher percentage than the adult population.
Even traditionally affluent areas were not spared bad news.
Orange and Santa Barbara counties, for example, were ranked among nine counties in the state that have made good progress in taking care of their children. But the report also pointed out that these two counties have experienced the second- and third-highest leaps, respectively, during the last three years in the percentage of children living in extreme poverty. Both counties were hit by increases of more than 25%, the report said.
"The results of more than a decade of neglect are now coming home in communities across California," said James P. Steyer, president of Children Now. "Today's portrait of California's 7.8 million children is a dismaying one."
"There is an avalanche building," warned the group's vice president, Wendy Lazarus, "and more and more kids are at risk of being hurt by it."
The report tracks the well-being of children across the state by measuring 27 benchmark indicators of health, safety and welfare during the last four years and, in some cases, over the course of a decade as well. California ranked worse than the national average in 24 of these areas, including rates of unemployed youth, teen births, incarcerated juveniles, children in foster care and classroom student/teacher ratios.
The state's performance is deteriorating in almost half of those 27 areas--including SAT scores, rates of child support collections, youth homicide, children living in poverty and children without health insurance.
About 2.1 million children and youths under age 18 have no health insurance coverage through either public or private programs--an increase of 62% over the last six years. California now ranks 42nd among 50 states in its proportion of children without health insurance.
More than 50% of the state's 2-year-olds are not fully immunized. Twenty California counties--mainly large, highly populated areas--have higher percentages of babies born prematurely or underweight than do Iran, Egypt or Hong Kong.
Los Angeles is ranked in the bottom 10 of all counties based on its poor performance in seven of 10 key areas, including its high rate of underweight newborns and its unsafe environment. The report pointed out that children in Los Angeles live in the most violent area of the state, where the crime rate has risen 16% during the last four years.
As for teen pregnancies, the report documented that Los Angeles has the seventh-highest rate among counties statewide. The number of births to unmarried teens grew 22% from 1986 to 1989, even though the number of females aged 15 to 19 in the county declined.
The report states that the number of children has grown in nearly every county in the state during the last 10 years, with Riverside County showing the biggest increase--81%--and San Bernardino following with a 62% increase. (Only Marin and Inyo counties have fewer children now than 10 years ago.)
The percentage of children living in extreme poverty in the counties of Riverside and San Bernardino grew dramatically--77% in Riverside and 114% in San Bernardino.