Advocates for young children are applauding the state’s budget plans for next fiscal year, which include millions of dollars for programs that help low-income parents and kids.
The $200-billion spending plan, which Gov. Jerry Brown is expected to sign into law, increases funding for cash assistance to poor families, launches a statewide home visiting program for new parents on welfare, and makes available more than 13,000 new vouchers to help low-income families pay for child care.
While the funding boost doesn’t meet all the needs of children and parents living in poverty, it is a significant investment and signals a willingness among lawmakers to tackle childhood disadvantage, advocates said.
“We’re very happy overall with the budget,” said Janice LeRoux, president of First 5 Association of California. “This is the best budget we’ve seen for kids and families in a long time.”
For families enrolled in the state’s cash assistance program, CalWORKS, the budget includes $90 million to increase their monthly grants by 10 percent starting April 1. The grants were cut during the last economic recession and have remained stagnant for years, failing to keep up with inflation.
With the budgeted increase, CalWorks funding will return to roughly pre-recession levels, said Ted Lempert, president of the advocacy group Children Now. He said the larger grants will help improve economic security for poor families, which in turn benefits children.
LeRoux agreed the increase will help stabilize the home environment for kids living in poverty.
“No matter what we can do as agencies that support families, if they are in deep poverty, there’s only so much that we can do,” she said. “The grants to move children out of deep poverty are really critical to helping ends meet, but also reducing parental stress and promoting a healthy environment for children.”
The budget also provides $27 million in funding for a home visiting initiative that targets parents enrolled in CalWORKS. Parents participating in the program receive home visits from specialists who help advise them on positive parenting practices, childhood development, family cohesion, and connect them to services. The program already exists in some counties, but will now become more widely available, said Lempert.
“It’s been shown to have huge benefits, the studies that have been done show it leads to stronger health outcomes in the child,” he said. “It’s obviously an incredibly stressful time in the families’ life, and to have the support early on gets the child off to the right start.”
Jessica Bartholow, policy advocate for the Western Center on Law and Poverty, said the budget sets a goal of ending youth and childhood poverty for the first time. While additional budget commitments must be secured in the coming years in order to meet that goal, the state is moving in the right direction, she said.
“There was an acknowledgement that (childhood poverty) does exist, that it’s at a crisis level, and that it’s a priority for us to address it,” she said. “You can’t solve something unless you’re willing to face it.”
The budget also sets aside $409 million over four years to expand child-care vouchers for more than 13,000 low-income families. Advocates said they approved of the expansion, but it comes nowhere close to meeting actual demand for affordable child-care.
About 1.4 million children are eligible for subsidized child care but are not receiving subsidies, said LeRoux with the First 5 Association. Even more middle-income parents struggle to afford child care even though they’re not eligible for subsidies, she added.
“If parents can have high quality child care for their children, they don’t have to worry about them and they can go to work,” she said. “It’s a really important vehicle for family maintenance and stability, as well as growth and development of children.”
The budget, LeRoux said, “is a great first step but there is much to be done to making that a sustainable situation where we know that kids have access to child care.”