You may have noticed the State of Babies Yearbook: 2019 show up in your social media feeds in the last week or so. The yearbook, an effort of Zero to Three and Child Trends, is an example of a growing focus in the ECE policy field on issues affecting children younger than preschool age. (Then candidate, now Governor, Gavin Newsom was typically ahead of this trend when he responded to a question at a Silicon Valley Community Foundation forum in May 2016 about preschool by talking about children 0-18 months of age). The yearbook compares states across 60 indicators and policy domains in three key areas: “Good Health”, “Strong Families” and “Positive Early Learning Experiences” and begins with a few headline statistics. Almost half of children ages 0-3 live in low income families (45%) and more than half are children of color (51%). A majority of these children have mothers in the workforce (61%), and significant numbers live in single-parent households (21%) or in household headed by grandparents (9%). These numbers hint at significant challenges for babies, and their caregivers, at the most crucial time in their physical, cognitive and emotional development.
Overall, California ranked in the third of four tiers – just below average – but with significant variation within and across the three domains. The state continues to be well ahead of the pack in terms of health and medical outcomes (the “Good Health” measures) with rates of infant mortality, low birth weights, missing prenatal care, and maternal mental health issues well below national averages and with strong results in the food security and health insurance measures. However, significant work remains to be done in providing preventive health care and dental services to our infants and toddlers, and vaccination rates remain well below national averages. The only recommended policy suggestion for California in this domain was to provide infant and early childhood mental health services in early care and education settings (which may be partially addressed by last year’s passage of AB 2698 – Rubio).
The state does not do quite so well in the “Strong Families” measures with high rates of TANF participation among families in poverty and low rates of adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) being offset by having among the lowest percentage of eligible infants and toddlers receive home visiting services. Families also reported crowded housing (28.3%) and living in unsafe neighborhoods (18.9%) at well over the national average rates (15.6% and 6.3%, respectively).
Where the state really falls down is in the “Positive Early Learning Experiences” measures – which should surprise none of us. California’s rates of developmental screening (22.4%) and cost of care as a percentage of income are firmly in the lowest tier of states. Worse, we provide child care subsidies to low income families (1.8%), and read to our infants and toddlers every day (25.5%), at lower rates than anywhere else in the country.
These data point to substantial challenges for the early care, health and education field – and for Governor Newsom and his child- and family-focused administration – in a state that boasts the world’s fifth largest economy. The January Budget Proposal made some moves in the direction of providing more resources to address these needs, but clearly there is a mountain of work to be done.