California is failing our kids

Eight-year-old Lonyae Marshall takes part in the Easter egg hunt at Fairytale Town on March 27. A new report calls for investing more in California’s children.
Eight-year-old Lonyae Marshall takes part in the Easter egg hunt at Fairytale Town on March 27. A new report calls for investing more in California’s children.

California’s economy is the seventh-largest in the world, and home to global industries that have revolutionized our way of life. Yet when it comes to caring for our children, we are failing to provide the essential services they need to thrive and succeed.

The facts are disturbing and unacceptable. California ranks 49th among the states for standard of living for kids; roughly half of children are in families in or near poverty; nearly three-fourths of our youngest kids don’t receive health screenings; one in four don’t regularly have enough food to eat; and about 1 million don’t have access to licensed child care. Adverse childhood experiences can have profound and lifelong negative consequences.

We need a better approach. We need to prioritize kids from the earliest age with a comprehensive system of care. This will take leadership from the grass roots, elected officials and the business community.

This is the conclusion of a report issued Wednesday by the Right Start Commission, an initiative of the advocacy group Common Sense. As commission members, we spent months listening to business, academic and community leaders to develop a comprehensive plan to put children at the center of our politics.

Too often and for too long, decisions in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., have reflected the will of the powerful and well connected. Though elected officials pay lip service to helping children, they do not prioritize kids and families. That has to change. Parents, business leaders and elected officials must all hold each other accountable for creating policies that do right by our kids.

Harnessing California’s energy and creativity will be essential to solving the systemic hurdles to opportunity facing many children. While we outline the need for targeted, smart public investments, money alone isn’t enough. We also need engagement and leadership from the business community to provide family-friendly workplaces that offer child care assistance, reliable schedules and paid family leave. Parents and caregivers also need to take a more active, collective role in fighting for kids.

We know the only way to create lasting, meaningful change is when ordinary people stand up and demand it, so community-based organizing, identifying and engaging leaders across California will be crucial. These leaders can urge public officials to prioritize kids. We already have leaders in Sacramento willing to lead the way, including new Assembly Speaker Anthony Rendon, D-Paramount.

Rendon understands that strategic investments in kids pay dividends. Every dollar we invest in educating our children produces an eight-fold return. Yet millions of American kids are denied the opportunity for quality learning during their formative years. This is especially true for low-income children and children of color, and is only made worse by a lack of access to even basic technology.

While our problems are great, we have advantages in California – political will among voters and elected officials to do better by our children, and ingenuity and creativity recognized around the world.

It will take imagination and cooperation from federal, state and local government officials, as well as business groups, technology companies and passionate advocates. Prioritizing our children is more than just important public policy. It’s also common sense.

Nadine Burke Harris is founder and CEO of the Center for Youth Wellness in San Francisco and co-chairwoman of the Right Start Commission. She can be contacted at James P. Steyer is founder and CEO of Common Sense, an advocacy group in San Francisco. He can be contacted at