Spending on Kids Is Right Financial Thing To Do, Advocates Argue

For years, children’s advocates have argued that improving health and education for kids is the right thing to do.

Now, in the midst of the worst economic slump the state has faced in decades, children’s advocates are arguing that putting kids first is the right financial thing to do.

In an annual report on children’s issues released last week, children’s advocates argue that circumstances undermining California kids’ health and education are also undermining the economic prosperity of the state as a whole.

The “2009 California Report Card: Setting the Agenda for Children,” a 56-page report released by Children Now, contends that deficiencies in children’s health and education policies are leading to significant, negative outcomes for all Californians in the form of increased health care costs and decreased economic output.

Although they say their data is clear on the value of spending on kids and few policymakers argue with them, children’s advocates admit these are tough times for health and education funding.

“I think a lot of people give lip service to children but when it comes down to giving money and making long-term policy decisions on their behalf, it’s a different story,” said former Assembly member Wilma Chan, who is now vice president for policy at Children Now.

Chan, who served as Assembly majority leader and chair of the Assembly’s Health Committee during her eight years in Sacramento, said legislators should not lose sight of the big picture during these hard economic times.

“This is a good time to call people’s attention to the fact that if you invest money now, you’ll save money in the future,” Chan said.

Opposition Hard To Find

Not many lawmakers argue with the findings in the report. Even fiscally conservative Republicans acknowledge the long-term value of investing in children’s health and education.

Some legislators want money already in the system to be redirected rather than seeking new funding.

“It’s my opinion that a resistance to reform, not lack of money, is threatening health care coverage for thousands of California’s children,” said Sen. Sam Aanestad (R-Grass Valley), vice chair of the Senate Health Committee last year.

As an example, Aanestad pointed to Healthy Families, California’s version of the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which recently weathered a budget shortfall with money from another state program. Before being bailed out, Healthy Families officials considered closing enrollment in the program for low-income families and putting kids on a waiting list.

“As an oral surgeon in practice for many years, I’m more than frustrated these ‘solutions’ give no better alternative than creating a waiting list for the medical, dental and vision needs of children without resources,” Aanestad said.  “I understand the importance of preventative care and I understand the kind of damage that can result from a lack of basic childhood dental care.”

“But asking California taxpayers to shoulder an additional burden is not the answer. There is a better way to provide for the basic medical needs of our children,” Aanestad said. He said redistributing “First 5 commission money mandated by voters to support children’s health care would be a good first step.”

“Millions of dollars allocated under First 5 could be redirected to programs like Healthy Families for the basic medical, dental and vision needs of our children,” Aanestad said. “But, instead, much of First 5 funding is used to subsidize cartoon shows — $4 million last year alone — neighborhood parties, Italian immersion classes, digital cameras and craft workshops. This is a tremendous waste of resources,” Aanestad said. 

First 5’s Role Narrowly Defined 

First 5 California and the California Children and Families Commission were established after voters passed Proposition 10 in 1998, adding a 50 cents-per-pack tax on cigarettes to fund education, health, child care and other programs.

The tax generates about $550 million annually and some lawmakers are eager to spread it around. The program, however, comes with some strings attached: It can be used only for expectant parents and children up to age five and only through one of California’s 58 counties, all of which have created their own local First 5 County Commissions.

Last month, Healthy Families accepted a one-time $16.7 million grant from First 5. The money is to be used only for enrolling children ages five and younger.

Chan agrees that First 5’s bailout of Healthy Families was a good thing, but she points out other factors make it difficult for First 5 money to be used regularly to fill gaps in other programs.

“There are some constraints in how that money is to be used,” Chan said. “It wasn’t supposed to be used to backfill — to fund programs that already exist –  for example.” 

Poor Grades on Report Card 

According to the 2009 Report Card, more than one million children are projected to be without health insurance in California this year and when those kids do eventually need medical attention, they’ll probably end up at a hospital where it costs Californians about $7,000 to treat an uninsured child.

By contrast, providing health coverage costs about $1,200 annually per child — about 17% of one hospital visit, according to the report.

The report also characterized rates for childhood obesity and asthma as “alarming.” About 16% of the state’s adolescents are overweight or obese, the report said. Medical expenses attributed to obesity cost Californians $7.7 billion each year, with $1.7 billion paid by Medicaid.

The report card assigned letter grades to health, education and other issues. The state earned three B’s, five C’s and four D’s.

Low grades might not be enough to sway lawmakers faced with rising tides of red ink, and children’s advocates realize that.

“This is a tough environment,” Chan said. “The point we’re trying to make is that if you have a few dollars to spend — spend it on kids because the payoff is worth it down the road.”

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