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Study Faults State on Child Issues

California is found to lag most states in various measures of providing for its youth.

October 23, 2002|Carla Rivera | Times Staff Writer

Despite high levels of wealth, California compares poorly with many other states in providing adequate education, health care and economic security for young children and their families, according to a study by the advocacy group Children Now.

The annual California Report Card to be released today by the Oakland-based group found that the state ranked 33rd among states and the District of Columbia in public school expenditures per student, last in student/counselor ratio, had the third-highest rate of juveniles incarcerated and the eighth-highest rate of child poverty.

In other measures -- based on census and other government data -- just over half of California's 3- and 4-year-olds attended preschool in 2000 compared with two-thirds nationwide; 41% were enrolled in Head Start programs compared to 58% nationwide.

In 26 of 34 education, health, family economics and safety measures where comparable national figures were available, California ranked below the national average.

The state was 34th in the percentage of children receiving early childhood immunizations. It also fared worse than the national average in the percentage of children under 18 who experience hunger or food insecurity (18% nationally versus 23% in California) and the percentage of eligible children served by federal school lunch programs (90% nationally versus 71% here).

California is making headway in some areas. It has the sixth-lowest rate of infant mortality and the ninth-lowest rate of low birth weight babies. The teenage birth rate is falling slightly faster here than the national average, and fewer children here are dying or being hurt in motor vehicle accidents (the California rate is 4.9 fatalities per 100,000 compared to 7.0 nationally).

In examining reasons for the gaps, the report concluded that the state "has not made young children a top priority.... The data illustrate that California's young children are growing up in circumstances that demand our attention and action."

The report said California lags despite Proposition 10, a 1998 initiative by actor and director Rob Reiner that dedicates a portion of tobacco taxes to improving early childhood development. The measure generated about $650 million last year.

"There's a tendency to look to Proposition 10 and say 'There's our spending on young children,' " said Children Now Vice President Amy Dominguez-Arms, who co-wrote the report.

"It's an important pocket of funds, but it's small in comparison to needs of the state," she added. "Six hundred million in annual revenues compared to a $100-billion state budget is not much."

The report also noted how difficult it is for some families to provide the best for their children. About 25% of youngsters in the state live in families in which at least one parent works 50 weeks a year but still meet federal guidelines for a low-income family (an income of less than $28,300 for a family of three).

Another child-friendly measure on this year's November ballot -- Proposition 49 sponsored by film star Arnold Schwarzenegger -- would require the state to use up to $550 million in general fund revenues to pay for before- and after-school programs for elementary and junior high school students.

State officials said they had not had a chance to read the report thoroughly but cited areas in it showing improvement, including a trend toward fewer children in foster care (8.3 children under 18 per 1,000 in 2000 compared to 9.8 in 1998).

The state also has hiked spending on child care to about $3 billion a year, said Bruce Wagstaff, deputy director of welfare programs for the state Department of Social Services. Funding of other child welfare programs topped $2 billion, he said.

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