What does 2011 hold for California’s Children?

When it comes to crystal balling 2011 and what it portends for California’s children, the images that can be seen are fuzzy; decidedly low definition.
For those of us who work on children’s issues in or around state government, it appeals to our vanity to emphasize Sacramento politics in our children’s forecast. But the truth is that the  schizophrenic nature of the economic recovery will prove more broadly and deeply hurtful to California’s children in 2011 than the state budget fiasco.
Every study underscores the tight connection between the financial well-being of families and therefore children and well-being of families and therefore children.
Unsurprisingly, children living with parents who are not economically stressed fare far better than children being raised in families that are barely and frantically scraping by. It is a mistake, however,  to see this as just a problem of material wealth, although, obviously, the urgent concern when times are economically bad is that children have shelter, clothes, food, and health care.
Where their parents are concerned, the radar of children is finely tuned — their survival depends upon it. And so the devastating and permanently life-altering, non material consequences for parents of joblesness — fear, depression, stress and anxiety, divorce, drug and alcohol abuse, a loss of hope, a leaden omnipresent sense of failure — will inevitably change the trajectories of their children, odds are for the worse.
Even while some corporations happily report unprecedented earnings, and even as the capital markets surge toward restoration of pre-recessionary levels, huge swaths of California suffer unemployment rates still significantly over ten percent. But because unemployment rates don’t count people who have given up looking or count people who have taken jobs at wages far below what they were making before, an unemployment rate of, say, 12 percent comes nowhere close to revealing the true number of children and families that will cry or be scared or feel anxious or go without meals or go without healthful meals or needed health care or happy birthdays in 2011.
The now apparently permanent chasm between the fates of Wall Street and Main Street and what it foretells for the well-being of California’s children in 2011 and beyond is to me the single most frightening portend for our State’s (and nation’s) future. When meshed with an appreciation for the might of the former to dictate the policies that shape the lives of the latter, the prospects for the vast majority of our children to live better lives than mine look dim and grim, for 2011 and beyond.
Which brings me back to Sacramento. Governor Jerry Brown’s budget is not so far different that Governor Schwarzenegger’s last budget where children are concerned to warrant much ink. Both make wretched slashing cuts to programs benefitting children. Those cuts will irrevocably hurt tens of thousands of blameless kids. Some children will die in abusive homes when no CPS worker is available to searchingly review their circumstances. Some children will be forever crippled by failing to obtain needed health care. Many will be homeless or less visibly end up in desperate cul-de-sac lives of crime, drug abuse, or  dysfunctional and violent relationships because government programs that can successfully break the cycle of poverty no longer exist or are insufficiently available.
The budget also utterly fails to twist state bureaucracies toward articulated goals and priorities, toward sunshine and changing the way services are delivered to be more friendly and less expensive. And, even while everyone knows the nexus between poverty, illiteracy, poor health, and broken families and costly prison stays, the budget makes cuts that are fiscally stupid; cuts that would get any investment advisor fired, if judged by an ROI (return on investment) point of view.
The 2011 proposed state budget is in the main common.
None of this is predestined. All of it is symptomatic of who pays and who doesn’t pay the costs of political campaigns of both parties.
If a few children were billionaires and looked out for other children the way labor or chambers of commerce represent their  members, these cuts would never be spoken of aloud, let alone proposed.
Thus, the similarity between these budgets should not raise an eyebrow. Elected officials must make daily decisions within a context and reality they didn’t make with typically little bandwidth both to do the urgent thing and the long term thing of changing the reality they work in at the same time. The way overall politics dysfunctions under the last governor is the same as for the new one.
What is really different, however, about this  Governor isn’t his budget. It is his apparent commitment to use the full wattgage of his ambition, intellect, strategic experience, and boldness, to present the argument for government as a needed component of civil society squarely to the California electorate.
By premising his budget forthrightly on tax increases and by already laying out in stark terms the civil consequences of a denuded social fabric, this Governor at this early stage appears courageously poised to call the question on what kind of civil society Californians want to have.
Like Kirk re-programming the supposedly unwinnable Kobayashi Maru Starfleet test, Brown is apparently seeking to do what very few politicians ever do: win by changing the context within the game that is being played. Democrats of uncommon eloquence and brilliance have shrunk before this challenge — Clinton, Obama — in favor of short run, needed progress.
The decision of these two presidents to get what was immediately gettable legislatively wasn’t necessarily wrong. Yet to lay the foundation for a rejiggered economy where the vast majority of families and children benefit from  the brilliance of  market-provided prosperity, we need to talk candidly substantively and unpopularly about first principles; about wealth, about generational opportunity, about the commonweal and the common good, and come to some consensus about what we are willing to pay for.
We need to talk about what government means and doesn’t mean. Governor Brown seems eager to have that conversation and the one word that keeps bouncing around inside my skull is:
Finally!

About the Author:
Ed Howard is CPIL/CAI Senior Counsel. His expertise in California legislative politics and policy stems from his years as Special Counsel and Chief Policy Advisor to a State Senator and Chief Consultant of two standing California legislative committees. During his years as a staffer in the Legislature, he spearheaded the enactment of numerous and nationally trend-setting laws in the areas of privacy, technology, IT procurement, the regulation of licensed professions, health care, and consumer rights. His legislative portfolio not only included detailed legislative drafting, research, negotiating, and advocacy within the Capitol with elected officials and their staff, but also major speechwriting and political strategizing.

Howard received his B.A. from The George Washington University’s political science program in Washington, D.C. and received his J.D. from Loyola Law School, where he was awarded the American Jurisprudence Award for Constitutional Law and was selected as Chief Justice of the Moot Court. He is a member of the State Bar of California, and as well is admitted to practice law before the Ninth Circuit and United States Supreme Courts.

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