The release this week of Gov. Jerry Brown’s new state budget coincides with the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s declaration of a “War on Poverty.”

To mark the occasion, Children Now, an Oakland-based advocacy organization, released its 2014 California Children’s Report Card. It’s an assessment of 27 child welfare areas, ranging from health to foster care to education. And for state elected officials, policymakers, educators and others, it’s not the kind of report card they can brag about. It’s full of C’s and D’s with a smattering of B’s.

For starters, it notes that nearly half (48 percent) of California’s 9.3 million kids live in low-income or poor households. (Note this is twice as high as the U.S. Census estimates of poor children because it includes those living in low-income households, which is less than $46,000 annual income for a family of four.)

That’s an astonishing number as the state’s economic recovery gains strength, which brings us to that budget surplus.

The governor this week noted that despite the relatively good news, “by no means are we out of the wilderness.” For California’s kids living in poverty, the wilderness has been especially dark, with years of cuts to health and welfare programs, K-12 public schools and higher education.

That might explain another child advocacy group’s rather harsh reaction to the governor’s call for prudence, caution and fiscal restraint.

“We understand the wisdom of preparing for the future; however, it is irresponsible to allocate billions to pay down state debt and build a rainy-day fund when one in four California children live in poverty,” said Michele Stillwell-Parvensky of Children’s Defense Fund-California.

In a statement, Stillwell-Parvensky said the governor’s budget “fails to recognize the dire need to repair a social safety net that was shredded during five years of budget cuts to critical programs.”

These assessments by two leading children’s organizations – Children Now and Children’s Defense Fund – are in some ways an indictment of Democrats. If California has failed children, as both groups say, should not Democrats be held accountable?

The party controls every statewide office from governor on down, and it now has overwhelming majorities in the state Assembly and Senate. While the recession and Sacramento Republicans (before voters allowed budgets to pass with a simple majority, leaving the GOP with less power) drove recent spending cuts, there are plenty of policies Democrats could change or reinstate if they wanted to.

Take these assessments from the Children Now report:

  • Teacher Training & Evaluation: D
  • School Climate & Discipline: C –
  • Education of Foster Youth: D –

More money – especially for early childhood programs — would surely help some. But infamously frugal Jerry Brown seems unlikely to add any more money to social programs on his own. For that to happen, other Democratic leaders are going to have to step in before the budget becomes final.



Scott Shafer

Scott Shafer migrated to KQED in 1998 after extended stints in politics and government to host The California  Report. Now he covers those things and more as senior editor for KQED's Politics and Government Desk. When he's not asking questions you'll often find him in a pool playing water polo. Find him on Twitter @scottshafer

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