California’s Children Suffer from Budget Cuts

Across the state, budget cuts threaten stability of programs and services that benefit children in need.
by | March 14, 2011

Hardly anyone will be spared from the ripple effect of California’s financial crisis, but the biggest victims might be those who don’t know it yet: children.

Gov. Jerry Brown’s plan to take a machete to the state budget hasn’t been settled yet, but up and down the state, child care and welfare programs are already feeling the pain. In his quest to resolve the $26.6 billion budget deficit, he proposes a $577 million cut to the state’s child care program by reducing funding for each slot by 35 percent. The state’s CalWORKS program – or welfare-to-work – would be cut by $851 million.

Another group in the red zone is First 5 California (the California Children and Families Commission), which distributes funds to local communities to provide critical services to parents, caregivers and children from birth to five years. The commissions fund various early childhood programs, such as oral health and child abuse prevention, and other services to keep kids from getting caught in other state systems. Each community has different needs.

Brown initially claimed that state and local commissions had $2 billion in reserves. He wanted to redirect $1 billion from tobacco tax money to children's Medi-Cal and divert 50 percent of future First 5 revenues to other state services. But lawmakers rejected the proposal, opting for a one-time funding sweep of $50 million from the state commission and $950 million from county commissions. Even so, that’s more than First 5 is ready to give up, says Sherry Novick, executive director of First 5 California.

“This amount that they’re planning to take away is far greater than we had ever anticipated,” Novick says. “It’s going to cause damage that goes beyond what the government and legislators may be aware of.”

At the same time, Novick says, she understands the complexities of California’s financial situation, but almost half of the money that the lawmakers think are in reserves are already committed to multi-year programs. Of course, the new budget would lead to the termination of contracts if the money’s not available, which will put an end to various services.

Now, local commissions must face same challenges of the Legislature in figuring out which programs to cut. First 5 Contra Costa had hoped to have $30 million to work with, but now it’s looking like the commission will have to settle for about $8 million, which could affect its most significant programs that help the neediest families, such as Preschool Makes a Difference.

“That’s funding that we had in place to sustain our programs for the next four years,” says Sean Casey, the executive director. “We have to very quickly scale back everything in time for the new fiscal year in July.”

Likewise, First 5 Solano is in the process of readjusting funding to its major initiatives, including prenatal programs for pregnant women at risk of birth complications, and an early developmental health initiative. “We make sure kids get developmental screening,” says Christina Arrostuto, executive director of First 5 Solano. “We try to reach them when they're one and two [years old], so they don't end up in special education, which is a burden on the school systems.”

These cuts could interfere with the benefits that come from valuable child care programs. According to the Study of Early Child Care and Youth Development, teens who had attended high-quality child care programs scored higher on academic and cognitive tests than their peers, and had fewer problems at age 15.

Released last spring and authored by UC Irvine education professor and chair Deborah Lowe Vandell, the study is touted as the largest, longest-running and most comprehensive analysis of child care in the U.S. Participating families were recruited through hospital visits, and researchers followed 1,300 children from birth.

“Child care experiences are significant not just in the here and now,” Vandell said in UC Irvine Today release last May. “They have long-term implications,”

California lawmakers missed Brown’s self-imposed budget deadline last week, and talks will continue this week. But the delays can’t stop what looks like the inevitable. The good news is that so far, K-12 education has been spared from direct cuts, as Brown said they've suffered enough in recent years. But for children, the impact of the massive cuts in other areas will be felt even before then.

“More kids are going to be entering the K-12 system not yet ready,” Casey says. “There's going to be a greater gap in learning and that means parents and families are going to suffer more.”