California, where the news about children is often depressing, received some good tidings Wednesday. It ranks among the top states in terms of spending and programs for children, according to a Columbia University study.
But despite the new programs and increased funding noted in the survey, a children's advocate complained that California's efforts are sadly short of what they should be.
The report, released by the National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health, found that states in general are substantially boosting social services for children.
The amount states spent on early childhood programs rose 87% in the last two years, to $3.7 billion, while funding for infants and toddlers more than doubled.
Julian Palmer, spokesman for the center, attributed the increase to a growing awareness of the importance of a child's early years.
"The first few years can make a tremendous difference in a child's life," Palmer said. "And the system is beginning to respond to that."
In giving comparatively good marks to California, the report cited a variety of factors, ranging from state income tax policies to a new state initiative that diverts hundreds of millions of dollars a year in cigarette taxes to early childhood programs and family services.
The study found that in the last two years, California has nearly doubled funding for pre-kindergarten programs, expanded its support services for teenage parents and started pilot programs intended to prevent child abuse and neglect.
All told, California has one of the highest levels of per-capita spending on child development and family support--$294 for children under 6, roughly double the national average, Palmer said.
The study did not numerically rank states, but singled out California, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Vermont as making strong investments in family support and child development. Still, California's rate of child poverty, 23%, exceeds the national average. For the very youngest children, the rate is even higher--an average of 29% between 1994 and 1998, according to the Columbia center.
Nearly one of every six poor children in the country live in California, a fact that has sometimes been attributed to the extensive immigration of the last two decades.
But Palmer said that does not necessarily explain the high number of California children living in poverty, because other immigrant magnet states have lower rates.
Robert Fellmeth, director of the Children's Advocacy Institute, a statewide lobbying group, said that, funding increases notwithstanding, public spending on children in California is still proportionally far below what it once was.
Looking at public spending on children as a percentage of personal income and adjusting for inflation, Fellmeth said, funding is just over half of 1980 levels.
"That's pretty pathetic," he said. "I think this report is extremely misleading."
As for the new pot of money flowing from Proposition 10, the cigarette tax initiative, Fellmeth said there are no guarantees it will be well spent.
"It's a mistake for people to say that's a big fund and we don't have to worry any more."