Reflections on Proposition 10

F5CDadThis month marks the 15th anniversary of Proposition 10, the ballot initiative that created First 5 commissions in California. Although November 1998 seems like another era, even back then there was a wave of research that revolutionized the understanding of how early experiences affect the developing brain.

Armed with this knowledge, Hollywood director and producer Rob Reiner took a bold step and proposed a ballot initiative that even now seems impossibly ambitious: tax cigarettes at 50-cents-per pack and use the proceeds to create a system of programs for children 0 to 5 and their families in every California county by establishing independent commissions to provide oversight and allocate funds.

The initiative barely passed, with 50.5% of the electorate (51.72% in Contra Costa County!). Prop 10 opponents, almost entirely tobacco companies, outspent supporters by three to one. Two years later, those same opponents would put forward another initiative to repeal Prop 10, which was rejected by 78% of the voters. Later, there were other failed attempts to de-fund First 5. But these efforts never distracted us from our mission: to improve the lives of Contra Costa’s youngest children.

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Head Start Works

Alaska Fact Sheet.pdfDoes Head Start work?

On its face, the logic of providing early education, particularly for disadvantaged children, seems obvious, not only for the benefit to the child, but to the schools that will be educating the child down the line.

As a federal program, its cost is relatively modest; at $7 billion it accounts for about 0.8% of the Health and Human Services Department’s total budget.

Last year, results from the most comprehensive study of Head Start were released. The Head Start Impact Study Third Grade Follow-up randomly selected children for participation in Head Start or for comparison and followed them through third grade. Many of the comparison children participated in other preschool programs, some of which may also have been subsidized, and few had no preschool experience at all.

There was disappointment in the early childhood world that the Impact Study did not show much difference at third grade between Head Start and comparison children, but many felt the outcome pointed to the variety of early learning options available to children who didn’t attend Head Start. We’ve come a long way since 1965.  Early learning is now found in numerous settings, funded through multiple public and private streams.

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The High Cost of Child Poverty

Over the years, I have seen a number of brain development experts show a slide of two brain scans depicting the difference between a normally developed infant and one deprived of stimulation and a loving relationship.

brainscanIn the well-developed brain on the left, rich areas of red and orange depicting high activity; on the right, a few lobes of orange in a sea of black empty space where there should be active tissue.

The deprived brain was that of a Romanian orphan in the 1990s. Rarely held or snuggled, much less removed from her crib, this poor child’s brain never had the kind of stimulation it required to grow appropriately.

I thought of this recently when I read a new report on poverty by Educational Testing Service that found the U.S. has the second highest rate of child poverty among the 35 richest nations. Only Romania has a greater proportion of its children in poverty than the U.S.

In the last ten years alone, there’s been a 35% increase in child poverty in the U.S., affecting more than one in five kids. The rate is even higher for Latino children (1 in 4) and African American children (nearly 1 in 3).

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A Roadmap to Cut Poverty

The Annie E. Casey Foundation released its annual Kids Count Data Book and once again California ranks 41st nationally on child well-being. How is it that California, considered one of the top ten economies in the world, can’t make it out of the bottom ten states in the country when it comes to the well-being of our children?

CASEYThe data do show that improvements have been made in health and educational outcomes for children. But alarmingly, when it comes to poverty, children are doing worse in every category.

Just about one in four children in California now lives in poverty. That means a quarter of our children are likely to be too hungry to grow, too distracted by overcrowded housing to learn, or too stressed to be healthy. This is the legacy of the Great Recession that will affect an entire generation of Californians if we do not address it quickly and emphatically.

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We Need to Invest in Little Kids, Too

childcareblogThe annual State of American Preschool report found that state spending for preschool is at its lowest level in a decade.

Years of state budget cuts, coupled with the sequestration, have decimated the infrastructure of the nation’s early care and education systems. California alone has reduced its early education budget by more than a $1 billion in recent years resulting in 110,000 children losing child care and preschool.

With the release of his May Revise to the 2013-14 state Budget yesterday, Governor Brown isn’t proposing to restore and rebuild California’s child care system any time soon.

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Contra Costa Ready for Universal Preschool

obamab_preschoolDuring last night’s State of the Union address, President Obama became the first president to propose what advocates, economists, and early care professionals have been saying for decades: Make high-quality preschool available to every child in America!

In California, about half of low-income 3- and 4-year-olds do not attend preschool, and even fewer attend high-quality preschool. As the President said, “for poor kids who need help the most, this lack of access to preschool education can shadow them for the rest of their lives.”

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Investing in Children Vital to California’s Economic Recovery

By now it’s almost trite to say that “children are our future,” but California’s future is in trouble if we don’t start making wise investments and policy decisions for children now.

In 1970, one in three Californians was a child. By 2030, a new report from KidsData estimates that only one in five will be.  Currently, nearly half of the state’s children live in poverty or close to it, which significantly limits their potential and can hinder their development. With Baby Boomers soon to retire, shouldn’t we be doing all we can to optimally prepare our future workforce for success?

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A Trend We Don’t Need

Here’s a trend we don’t need: more young adults are smoking in California, thus increasing the health risks for themselves and their children (or future children).

I’ve had an ironic relationship with tobacco over the years. With our work funded almost entirely by Proposition 10 tobacco taxes, our Commission has had to carefully plan the use of these funds that have decreased almost every year with the ongoing reduction in tobacco consumption. I’ve even joked about it: “Buy ‘em, don’t smoke ‘em” has been my witty retort over the years. We’ve been able to do great things for children with the revenues, and knowing that we were also keeping the price of smoking out of reach for young smokers has been a wonderful added benefit.

One of the great public health successes of our time is the significant reduction in smoking in California due to restrictions in workplace and public smoking, higher taxes, and restricted access to minors, keeping them from starting at an early age. As a result, smoking-related disease has declined dramatically in California since the early 1990s, much faster than the nationwide decline.

This is a family issue. Smoking hurts everyone, including the children of smokers. Think of all the young children who have grown up in smoke–free families in the last twenty years because their parents never started smoking as teenagers. And suddenly we learn the smoking rate of adults aged 18-24 goes up 18% in 2011 after declining in four of the previous five years.

This is not a trend we can allow to reverse itself.

Soda Taxes Fail…But the Facts Remain

Richmond has had the national spotlight for the last few weeks, and for good reason. The City, later joined by El Monte in Southern California, was the first in the nation to place on the ballot a tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages. While both measures failed, they did mark an important milestone in the fight against childhood obesity: singling out sugar-sweetened beverages as particularly harmful for children.

Today, children consume nearly twice as many calories from sugary drinks – juice, soda, sports drinks, flavored milk – than they did 30 years ago. What’s also doubled in the last 30 years? The number of overweight preschoolers in the U.S.

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How are Contra Costa’s Children Doing?

Children Now released its 2012 California County Scorecard yesterday, and its news for young children in Contra Costa is both promising and concerning.

Because what happens in early childhood lays the foundation for later success in school and life, technically all 28 indicators in the report have something to do with early childhood. But for the sake of understanding how well we are doing at laying the foundation, let’s examine indicators specific to early childhood.

The best news is that Contra Costa is seeing significant improvement in two indicators of literacy:

  • The number of young children who are read to every day is up by 12%; and
  • The number of third-graders who are reading at grade level is up 26%.

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