Why you should start reporting on California’s problems with children in mind

Published on
October 26, 2020

A tanking economy, massive housing insecurity, impossible-to-ignore climate disruption, widespread poverty, historic and ongoing racial injustice.

California has no shortage of problems, and most — whether overtly or not — affect health. Economic and housing insecurity impact people's ability to live stable, prosperous, and therefore healthy lives. Smoke from wildfires is bad for our lungs, and our psyches. Racial injustice drives health disparities that are now playing out in the COVID-19 crisis, with people of color disproportionately represented among those who get sick and die.

I often regard health reporting as the “cover everything” beat, because it seems that no matter the issue, there is almost always a physical or mental health component to any given societal woe. More recently, I’ve added an additional lens through which to view our state’s many challenges: children. That’s the lens I used when approaching a series of three stories I wrote recently with support from the Center for Health Journalism.

The articles focused on disparate topics, unified by one central theme: The critical influence of early childhood experiences on people’s long-term well-being. I explored how a program to quickly house domestic violence survivors helps stabilize the lives of survivors’ children; how Los Angeles’ robust network of home visiting programs is a powerful weapon against the vicious cycle of entrenched disadvantage; and looked at the potentially devastating consequences of young children with disabilities losing access to educational and therapeutic services during the pandemic.

Writing these articles convinced me that reporting on children provides a window into the state's future. If kids in our state are thriving, have quality medical care, stable home lives, a healthy environment, and access to quality education, it’s highly likely that California will be in good hands when those little people become the big people driving our economy, paying taxes, caring for the elderly (us), and taking on future challenges.

Sadly, as this excellent synopsis by CalMatters illustrates, we’re not there yet. Despite being the richest state, California leads the nation in child poverty, with one in every five children relying on food stamps, and poor children less likely than wealthier children to attend preschool. 

As reporters, shining a spotlight on children gives California’s future adults a voice. Children don’t vote, hold positions of power, or typically express their concerns at city council meetings or in letters to the editor. Yet they’re incredibly vulnerable to the impacts of dysfunction and inequality in our society. A 3-year-old can't control his mother’s inability to access prenatal care, the air pollution in his neighborhood, systemic racism, or the stress his family endures because of homelessness or domestic violence. But by the time he turns 40, he could still be suffering the consequences of these childhood challenges in the form of poor physical and mental health, lower educational attainment, and reduced earnings.

Conversely, efforts to improve the health and well-being of children deserve attention because they can have a hugely positive impact on children’s lives — both immediately and over the long term. And that's good for California as a whole. Studies clearly show that investments in childhood education and health, particularly for disadvantaged children, yield outsized returns and ultimately save taxpayers money. That's why programs such as home visiting hold so much promise.

The potential for stories about children is as rich and diverse as California itself. So many of the topics we report on every day could be approached from a child-focused angle. Here are just a few ideas:

Income inequality: Since 1980, the wealthiest families in California have enjoyed a 60% increase in income, while the poorest 10 percent have gained just 20 percent, according to the Public Policy Institute. How has this widening gap affected children? What's it like to grow up poor in California now, compared to 40 years ago?

Housing insecurity: Many of the people struggling to afford housing in California have children. Experiencing an eviction or having to move frequently as a child can be extremely traumatic, even if these children never become homeless (although many do). How is California's housing crisis affecting children’s physical and mental health?

Climate Change: At the California Health Report, we recently partnered on a story about the mental health impacts of wildfires and other natural disasters. While this story focused on adults, children in California are undoubtedly also suffering psychological impacts from repeat evacuations, smoky air, and — in some cases — the loss of homes and family members. Given the ongoing threat of wildfires, a story on this topic would be extremely timely.

COVID-19: There’s been a lot of reporting on school closures, and some attention to the impact on parents trying to work. Additional angles could include: the unique disadvantages confronting single, working parents with young children; the loss of playground access and its effect on young children's ability to get outdoors – particularly in low-income, urban communities; how the pandemic could affect the preschool enrollment gap; and how children are being affected by the loss of family members and caregivers to COVID-19.

That's just the tip of the iceberg. There are surely dozens more creative story ideas out there. Just put on your child-focused lens.