California's Children

A new snapshot of the children of California is a sort of double exposure. Some live in circumstances that offer a future with limitless horizons. Others inhabit a gloomy world of inadequate medical care and poor schooling whose future includes low expectations and often violent death. The challenge for policy-makers is to forge a brighter future for all of them.

Many California children are doing better than ever, according to a report by Policy Analysis for California Education. Their parents think of them as well-off. They are in good health, eat nutritious food and don't go to bed hungry. More of them than ever finish high school.

But the outlook is less rosy for a large and growing segment of the state's children. Nearly one in four lives in poverty. One child in six was born in another country, and may face language barriers and other problems. And their numbers are enormous: In another 10 years one American child in eight will live in California.

One more revealing statistic among many: Slightly more than half of California's poor children live with both parents, of whom at least one has a job. That obviously means that the working parent isn't earning enough to provide minimum needs. Increasing the minimum wage now and improving education so that people can get better jobs in the long run are vital steps if these families are to escape their poverty.

Trends covered by the report can be reversed, but it will take coordinated effort over many years by governors, legislators, child-advocacy groups and corporate leaders. It will require a cohesive state policy for children to replace the present hodgepodge of programs. Any state effort would also benefit from greater federal spending to help improve day-care programs, expand Head Start and extend coverage of the extraordinarily successful nutrition program aimed at pregnant women and their young children.

The need for a comprehensive policy is perhaps seen most clearly when one looks at teen-age pregnancies. In 1986 teen-agers had nearly 11% of all the babies born in California. The state has the second-highest teen-age pregnancy rate in the nation. And increasingly those teen-agers are not married: In a decade and a half the percentage has almost doubled, going from 32% unmarried in 1970 to 62% in 1986. Teen-agers are less likely to seek medical care early in their pregnancies, they may be poorly nourished, and as a result their babies may not flourish. Teen-age mothers face reduced employment prospects. They may not finish school themselves, and their own lack of education may handicap them in helping their children--who then fall behind and risk the same cycle.

Throwing money at some of the problems really will help. For example, there is a clear link between improved prenatal care and healthier babies. But many women cannot afford extensive, and expensive, care. So last year the Legislature wisely expanded the eligibility limits for Medi-Cal coverage for prenatal care, and Gov. George Deukmejian signed the measure. Now the state government must make sure that women know about the change.

The state must concentrate on such prevention programs to reduce the costs of curbing the school dropout rate, helping troubled adolescents, making sure that day-care providers are decently paid and trained, and helping reduce teen-age pregnancies. In this context the governor's plan to eliminate the state family-planning office is shameful.

Businesses have a role as well in providing child care and parental leave. Business leaders are increasingly aware of their stake in a well-educated citizenry; they must tell state government that they are willing to help pay for it. The public can get involved as well through a new advocacy group called Children Now that is trying to mobilize support to improve children's lives.

Children, it is said, have no clout in Sacramento because they have no vote. But their parents vote, as do their grandparents, teachers, social workers and doctors. Businessmen vote, too, and they must join the others in voting for government committed to expanding the horizons of all children.

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