‘Conditions of Children’: California’s Youth at Risk

What is it like to be a child in California?

Policy Analysis for California Education (PACE), an independent, university-based research center, has undertaken the first comprehensive overview of that question in “The Conditions of Children in California,” to be released Monday.

Our research uncovered both positive and negative trends. Most startling is the speed of change and degree to which children’s conditions are changing. Some trends that bode least well for children have accelerated the most rapidly.

California, once a leader among states in devising public policy for children and solutions to deal with rapid growth and changing demographics, has lost that edge. And the state currently has no mechanism for a comprehensive overhaul of children’s policies.


California is very different from other states, so much so that it cannot make intelligent children’s policy based on national statistics or trends. “The Conditions of Children in California” is designed to help policy-makers and others meet the emerging challenges.

We believe that a number of major policy implications flow from the report:

-- Solving children’s problems is complicated in California by the awesome numbers involved. In 1988, 7.3 million children lived here. By the year 2000, this number will rise by 20% to 8.7 million children. Stated another way, one out of eight children in the United States will live in California.

The sheer number of children has an obvious impact on a variety of agencies, including the schools. For example, by 1995, California’s school enrollment will equal the total enrollment of this nation’s 24 smallest states. State enrollment is currently growing by more than 140,000 pupils per year, more than the total enrollment of eight other states. In dollar terms, school finance alone will carve $20.6 billion out of the state’s budget.

-- Solving children’s problems is made even more difficult by California’s unprecedented cultural, geographic and economic diversity. California has only 11% of the nation’s population, but receives 27% of the nation’s immigrants. A majority of California’s children are minorities, with Asians and Latinos the fastest-growing groups. By the year 2000, 42% of California’s children will be white, 13% Asian, 36% Latino and 9% black.

The state has the largest number of immigrant children in the country. One out of six California schoolchildren was born in another country. A quarter of California schoolchildren speak a language other than English at home.

The gap between the white and nonwhite population (with the exception of Asians) is very large in terms of family resources for investment in children. White children as a whole are better off economically than at any time in history. But the number of children in poverty in California, 23%, doubled in the two decades between 1969 and 1989. And the income gap between the richest fifth of families and the poorest fifth is growing.

In recent years California has witnessed an alarming increase in the number of extremely vulnerable children--15% or more of babies born in public hospitals in big cities are drug- or alcohol-addicted. And the state is first in an unenviable U.S. statistic: We incarcerate children at more than twice the national average rate.

-- Changing family structures and work patterns add still more complexities. Although at any particular point 75% of children live in two-parent families (including stepparents), nearly half of all California children will live for some time in single-parent families.

Changes in female work patterns are creating demands for new services. More than half (54%) of California’s schoolchildren live in families in which both parents work. For children under age 6, 37% of both parents work full-time, 49% of both parents work part-time. For children ages 6-14, 54% of parents work full- or part-time. Thus, quality child-care becomes an increasingly important issue, especially for the working poor. Publicly supported child-care now covers only 25% of the low-income population who need such care.

For children, being in the care of publicly financed caretakers is no guarantee of good care. Children in foster homes, residential treatment facilities or institutions for juvenile delinquents have more problems when they leave such places than when they enter.

-- Improving children’s conditions will require a rethinking of children’s problems and of ways to deliver effective public and private services. The problems include both organizational inefficiency and inadequate funding. Sectors of government financially least able to deliver services are currently required to serve the neediest children. Financially most secure are city governments, which have the fewest children’s service requirements placed on them. County governments are in the most precarious financial shape, yet are responsible for servicing the most children in need.

Inefficiency and ineffectiveness often seem the rule, with a lack of communication among service providers and little or no interagency cooperation. School staffs, juvenile justice officials and mental health professionals, for example, rarely talk to one another.

-- Without change, social and economic forces will badly erode conditions for California’s children. Waves of immigrants continue to arrive on state shores. Their cultural and linguistic diversity offers new challenges to state policy-makers. In addition, the gap between the richest and the poorest California citizens continues to grow, a trend that bodes ill for California’s children.

We believe California can be a leader again. But superficial reorganization of existing services will not make a difference. What is required is a fundamental rethinking of children’s policies--beginning with federal and state government seed money to local groups who want to reconceptualize and integrate children’s services. Model programs already exist: Ventura County and Minneapolis are two places that have taken new approaches. Political and financial support would enable others to follow their lead.