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International Opinion

What Kind of Country Would California Be? Very Unequal

By Contributing Blogger — October 21, 2015 4 min read
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California’s children are especially hard hit by the state’s high poverty rate and income inequality; this according to a new California Budget & Policy Center report.

By Tom Luschei

We have read in this blog that California is exceptional. If California seceded from the union, it would surely be an exceptional nation...but in what way? Economically, California would rank eighth in the world, ahead of Canada, Italy, and Russia. Our knowledge economy would place us on the global cutting edge in terms of innovation and technological growth. Unfortunately, California’s great wealth is also accompanied by deep pockets of poverty, especially among minorities and less educated Californians.

As a result of these extremes of wealth and poverty, California ranks near the top of U.S. states in income inequality, as measured by the Gini Index. While California’s Gini Index (48.9) is slightly higher than that of the United Status (48.04), the United States ranks at the top of developed nations in income inequality. This means that California would be one of the most unequal developed countries in the world.

California would also lead the industrialized world in child poverty, again rivaling the United States. A recent report by the UNICEF Office of Research estimated that in 2012, nearly one in three children in the United States lives in poverty, compared to 8.8% in Finland and 13.4% in South Korea: two nations that are often identified as educational role models. The same report estimated child poverty in California to be (36%), similar to rates in Alabama (36.5%), Idaho (36.5%), and Oklahoma (36.2%). According to the California Budget and Policy Center, children also represent a disproportionate share of poor Californians: although children comprise 23.7% of the state’s population, they represent 32.7% of Californians living in poverty (see graph above).

Unfortunately, many of California’s poor children do not receive adequate health or educational services. In 2012, 75.5% of low-income families did not have a medical home. Although the percentage of children without health care coverage has declined as a result of federal health care reform, 497,000 Californian children—many of them poor—did not have health insurance in 2014. Additionally, a 2014 report by the California Legislative Analyst’s Office found that 54 of California’s counties provide fewer than 20% of low-income children with childcare and 26 counties serve fewer than 10% of low-income children. Although the income eligibility limit for subsidized preschool in California has not been updated since 2007, the limit for eligibility was lowered in 2011 from 75% to 70% of the state median income. As a result, many families are ineligible for subsidized childcare or preschool despite receiving relatively low incomes.

High levels of inequality and child poverty are bound to affect educational performance in California; if California were a country, where would it rank educationally? The results of the 2011 Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS) allow us to make a rough comparison, as California was included as a “benchmark” participant in eighth grade mathematics and science. In both math and science, Californian eighth graders scored below all other US benchmark states (Connecticut, Colorado, Florida, Indiana, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina), except Alabama. Californian eighth graders scored slightly below the international average of participating education systems in both math and science, substantially below top performers like Singapore, South Korea, Japan, and Finland, and below nearly all the developed countries participating in the assessment. In other words, California might be considered a developing or emerging country educationally.

Culturally, California shares many ties with our neighbors in Latin America and the Caribbean. Thirty-nine percent of our population is Latino and 29% speak Spanish at home. The impact of Latin America on California’s art and literature is indelible. California is home to the United States’ first Latino poet laureate, Juan Felipe Herrera. The son of migrant farmworkers of Mexican descent, Herrera spent much of his youth in Southern California. The impact of Mexico on Herrera’s work is clear, as he recalls the poetry he learned from his mother in an interview with NPR: “My sister, my grandmother and my mom came up on the train to Juarez, Chihuahua [Mexico], and then across the border to El Paso, Texas, with those early rhymes and songs and poems.”

What kind of country would California be? It would be one of the wealthiest but most unequal developed nations. Income inequality and child poverty place a strong drag on the state’s educational performance. California shares a long history and many ties with Latin America. If California were a country, it could be a northern extension of Latin America and the Caribbean. Let’s call it “Alta California,” its name as Spanish and then Mexican territory in the first half of the 19th Century.

If Alta California were to undertake reform to address its educational challenges, where should it look for appropriate models and reforms? In the next piece I argue that if we look to the south we will find many possibilities.

Tom Luschei is associate professor and co-director of the Urban Leadership Program at the Claremont Graduate University School of Educational Studies.

Tom Luschei photo: CTK

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