PPIC Logo Independent, objective, nonpartisan research
Press Release · July 18, 2003

California’s Children Lag Nation’s On Measures Of Well-Being

Children From Poorer, Less Educated, Immigrant Families Most At Risk

SAN FRANCISCO, California, July 18, 2003 — Although many of California’s children are faring well, a substantial minority — mostly poorer children — lag behind in key areas of child development, according to a study released today by the Public Policy Institute of California (PPIC). And children in California are doing slightly worse than children in the rest of the nation on a number of indicators of their well-being, from physical health to truancy.

The study, The Well-Being of California’s Children, uses a new source of information — The National Survey of America’s Families — to evaluate the status of more than 1,900 children in California. Overall, about 78 percent of the children are reported by their parents to be in very good or excellent health, compared to 83 percent in the rest of the nation. However, over one-third of the children had not seen a physician for routine preventative care in the last year, and over one-fifth had not seen a dentist.

The picture is less rosy for poorer children. Only 64 percent of children in the state’s poorest families — and 55 percent of children whose parents have less than a high school education — are reported to be in very good or excellent health, compared to nine in ten children in the wealthiest and most educated families. Children of less educated Hispanic immigrants are in worse health than other children but are receiving less routine medical care.

Similar to the percentage in the rest of the nation, more than 10 percent of California’s children are also experiencing serious behavioral problems that put them at risk for social and mental health problems later in life. However, the gap between children’s needs and treatment is higher in California than in the rest of the United States, with only 5 percent of these children receiving mental health services, and with poorer children particularly underserved. “These differences are disturbing, because it means that children with severe behavioral problems are less likely to be receiving treatment in California,” says coauthor Frank Furstenberg, Zellerbach Family Professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and a PPIC adjunct fellow.

The study also finds that about one-third of children in California are not highly engaged in school: About one-fifth skipped school in the past year, and about 13 percent were expelled or suspended in the past year. A greater percentage of children in California (12 percent) than in the rest of the nation (9 percent) skip school frequently.

Finally, one-quarter of California’s children were not involved in any extracurricular activities in the past year, compared to 20 percent of children in the rest of the nation. Children whose parents do not have a high school diploma and children living in poor families are less likely than other children to participate in social activities beneficial to their development.

“A considerable minority of California’s children are not adequately served by existing services,“ says Furstenberg. “For the most part, these children come from the poorest families in California, have parents with low levels of education, or live in Hispanic immigrant households. These families may lack the resources, knowledge, or social connections to obtain services for their kids.” The study recommends that policymakers consider using public information efforts in underserved communities to increase knowledge about mental health and preventative services. In addition, it suggests that California consider strengthening after-school programs for low-income youth.

Frank Furstenberg coauthored the report with Maureen Waller, assistant professor in the Department of Policy Analysis and Management at Cornell University, and Hongyu Wang, a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania.

The Public Policy Institute of California is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to improving public policy in California through independent, objective, nonpartisan research on major economic, social, and political issues. The institute was established in 1994 with an endowment from William R. Hewlett.