Investing in services that promote optimal child development, maternal health and family stability is crucial to California’s future.
By Kim Belshé, Special to CalMatters
Kim Belshé is executive director of First 5 LA, an independent public agency. She is the former secretary of the California Health and Human Services Agency.
As we approach the two-year anniversary of COVID-19’s arrival in California, the devastating impacts of the pandemic on young children and families have not extended to negative effects on our state budget.
While in 2022 we’re set to have a second consecutive year of historically high budget surpluses, national data demonstrates that routine pediatric vaccination rates, and primary and preventative services among our most vulnerable children have all steeply declined.
As Gov. Gavin Newsom finalizes his proposed state budget, California has an unprecedented opportunity to deliver much needed support to our youngest children, invest in families and build more effective and equitable systems of support. In doing so, the governor and legislators would be making the best use of California’s surpluses: There is no better investment we can make than in the well-being of our youngest children, providing them with a solid foundation for healthy growth and development.
Investing in services and supports that promote optimal child development, maternal health and family stability is crucial to California’s future. Investments in infants and toddlers now will help grow our future leaders, workers, innovators and entrepreneurs, expand California’s competitive edge into the future, and ensure the state remains a national and global leader.
Crucial to optimal early childhood development are strong and sustainable systems of early learning and early intervention to ensure children’s healthy development. Throughout the pandemic, though, thousands of child care providers have had to shut down, preventing families from finding care and subsequently, the state from fully getting back to work.
Central to an equitable, accessible, quality early learning system is a trained early educator workforce that receives full reimbursement for the true costs of caring for young children, which does not occur now.
California hasn’t always been in a position to make essential investments in our children and families. When I served as secretary of Health and Human Services under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s more than a decade ago, severe economic challenges and deficits instead forced policymakers to make gut-wrenching decisions about how and where to balance budgets. The unfortunate irony is that Health and Human Services, the agency charged with overseeing services and supports for our state’s most at-risk and underserved families, is the most vulnerable to budget reductions in times of economic crisis.
We don’t know if California will ever experience a period of sustained surplus like this again, including $75.7 billion last year and a projected $31 billion more this year, according to the Legislative Analyst Office’s recent fiscal outlook.
History tells us that another recession will happen eventually, and, as I know firsthand, budget deficits and painful cuts will follow. However, providing one-time money to temporarily prop up programs is not enough.
We must use the resources we have today to improve family-serving systems and actually make them work better. We can do this through enhancements like home visitation and Community Health Workers that promote prevention, bring down barriers to care and ultimately save the state money by strengthening the connections between systems and services to ensure children have the best start to life.
An approach centered on the whole child and whole family – which recognizes that a child cannot optimally develop without addressing historical contexts, such as structural racism, which powerfully disrupts child health and well-being, as well as family stability – will make current surpluses go as far as possible, and most importantly, help to strengthen California’s families.
With the COVID crisis continuing to challenge California, especially Black, Indigenous and people of color, the need for policy and systems change that helps strengthen families has never been more urgent. With California’s current financial position, that work has never been more feasible as well. Let’s not miss this “golden” opportunity.