As California Goes, so Goes the Nation

It’s time for the Golden State to set a national example on early learning

By Stacy Lee

June 10, 2021

California has long been on the cutting edge of innovation and social change. The popular saying “As California goes, so goes the nation,” came about in part due to the social and political movements that began here and spread across the country – both good and bad. Positive trends range from long-time environmental leadership to supporting our immigrant communities to ensuring equal rights for all. Negative trends include spawning the anti-tax movement, leading the way on the prison industrial complex and criminalization of people of color, and severe income inequality.

Also among the negative trends is the state’s longstanding, systemic underinvestment in children. On most indicators of child well-being, including supporting our youngest children, their families, and the providers who serve them, California ranks at the bottom of the country. Because California is home to 12% of all children under age 5 in the U.S. or, to put it simply, California has more children birth to age 5 than 14 other states have people – if California doesn’t do right by kids, it imperils the entire country.

Taking a closer look at the young children in California, we have more than 1.5 million families with infants and toddlers, and the majority of them qualify for child care assistance. Yet, the State has failed to ensure sufficient subsidies and spaces to serve income-eligible children — only 14% of children birth to 3 have access, meaning that the overwhelming majority of families struggle to find affordable, stable, quality child care. This situation leaves low-income families in the lurch to find a patchwork of care, exacerbating stress and vulnerabilities in the home, and it means we lose a meaningful opportunity to provide nurturing, whole-child support that research shows makes a lasting impact – a lose-lose for the current and future workforce.

In June and September 2020, Children Now commissioned EMC Research to conduct focus groups with California parents and caregivers of young children, and the participants’ comments got to the heart of the problems that too many parents face:

“It’s really hard to find a place that is high quality AND affordable.”

“I wish I had more options, I live in a small area and we don’t have many options and the options we have are really, really expensive. So we kind of have to go with what you can afford here.”

“The top choices were either too far away or too expensive, I think there are a lot of quality, but there is either long waiting list or it’s really pricey or restrictions on hours….so it’s like you don’t have a lot of choices. You have to go with something that’s accessible to you, works with your hours, is cost efficient.

If you put that all down on a piece of paper, it’s like, well I have two choices now which one can we get into? It’s very difficult.”

“There is a huge inequity issue and all the other things kind of feel secondary and that just feels wildly unfair.”

These families’ experiences demonstrate how the state’s underinvestment in the early learning system is leaving both families and children behind. Leading up to the COVID-19 pandemic, California was still recovering from the significant cuts to child care subsidies that occurred during the Great Recession, and in the years since, the state has been slow to expand child care assistance for families at the scale needed.

And the situation has only gotten worse. Families are struggling under the weight of the pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black, brown, Indigenous, and other families of color, migrant worker families, refugees and families living in low-income communities.

But the state isn’t just leaving families behind. Compounding the lack of affordable, comprehensive child care is the longstanding systemic underinvestment in the child care workforce which over time created a fragile landscape of programs that collapsed under the pressure of the pandemic. Under these intense, poorly supported conditions, many have closed their doors. The most recent data shows that California has permanently lost over 57,000 child care slots since March 2020.

In July 2020, Children Now commissioned EMC Research to survey more than 800 California parents and guardians of young children to highlight the realities of accessing high-quality early care and education across the state. The results were alarming:

  • 76% of respondents believe that high-quality child care and preschool is only available for families who can afford it, and 62% say they have had to sacrifice quality when choosing child care or preschool.
  • 77% of respondents are at least somewhat concerned about the availability of quality and affordable child care and preschool, and the number of parents who say they are very concerned about the availability of quality (51%) and affordable (49%) childcare and preschool rise above other issues including affordable housing and climate change.
  • Nearly all respondents believe that high-quality child care and preschool should be available for all (89%).

Parents, families, and providers caring for young children certainly understand the crisis; we know the Governor led with the issue of transforming systems for young children during his campaign and the state Assembly and Senate have produced the biggest, most ambitious plans to date to invest in young children. We need all of these leaders to listen to California’s families and align their policies and investments so they advance – not undermine – racial equity, for families, children, and providers. And to truly ensure change in California, and set a model for the country, the State must articulate and promote a quality approach that is inclusive, and honors and respond to the reality of current conditions in the field to better leverage the rich diversity of our state’s children, families, and ECE providers.