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Lifetime Trajectory Shaped in Earliest Years, Investing in Early Childhood Development Would Help Break Cycle of Poverty in California Says New Report

Oakland, CA – Key measures of children’s early learning and development are highly predictive of achievement in school and life, and show pronounced disparities based on race and family income, according to The First Eight Years: Giving Kids a Foundation for Lifetime Success, a new report by the Annie E. Casey Foundation released today in partnership with Children Now. Highlighting nearly half (49%) of California’s 0- to 8-year olds now live in low-income households, the report found large numbers of at-risk young children also are not receiving critical supports and preventive services they need to succeed in school and beyond. For example, too few infant and toddlers are receiving screenings for developmental delays, or attending preschool, putting them at a marked disadvantage. The report calls on California to invest more in proven, cost-effective early childhood development programs to help break the cycles of poverty and narrow the achievement gap that is limiting the state’s success.

“The achievement gap is basically set before kids start kindergarten,” said Ted Lempert, President of Children Now. “It’s illogical that we’re not providing all 0- to 8-year olds with the developmental support programs we know could solve many of the state’s most intractable problems – from dropouts to tax revenues – and pay for themselves.” 

The report provides an overview of how children’s development in the first few years of life impacts their success throughout their lifetimes. Income-based disparities in cognitive development emerge among infants as young as 18 months old and continue to widen as they grow older. The report states that by age 4, children in very low-income families have heard only 2 words for every 7 that a higher-income child has heard. Furthermore, by the time these children enter kindergarten, they are 12 to 14 months behind their higher-income peers in language and pre-reading skills. Young children’s vocabulary is predictive of third grade achievement and children who are not reading at grade level by third grade are more likely to drop out of high school and have trouble earning enough to be economically self-sufficient. Racial and income-based disparities are clearly evident in the national data presented in the report, for example:

  •   Only 38% of low-income 3- and 4-year olds were enrolled in any preschool program, compared with 55% of 3- and 4-year olds from higher-income households; and
  • More than 80% of African American and Hispanic fourth graders are not reading at grade level, compared to 68% of all fourth graders.

These national figures are reflected in California, where young children of color are significantly behind their peers in reading and math proficiency: 81% of African American and 88% of Latino fourth graders in the state are not reading at grade level, compared to 75% of all California fourth graders.

Providing an outline of what children need to succeed, the report strengthens the case for California to prioritize investing in a comprehensive, integrated system of early childhood programs and family support services, including voluntary home visiting programs, regular developmental screenings, and early intervention services.

“Making sure children have a solid start is not just an education issue or a parenting issue,” said Lempert. “It’s fundamentally an economic issue as well – one that is crucial to look at for the state’s continued economic recovery. This is why you see the business sector and others supporting the effort.”

Evidence of the diverse support for prioritizing children can be seen in the mix of businesses, community-based organizations, congregations, non-profits, parent groups and thousands of individuals that have joined The Children’s Movement of California. Spearheaded by Children Now, the Movement provides the infrastructure needed to coordinate the broad support for children’s issues to effectively impact state policymaking.

The full report is available here.

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