San Joaquin Valley children are poor, hungry, undereducated and at a greater risk of ending up in jail than those raised in any other region of the state, according to a new report highlighting chronic health issues in the area.
Hundreds of San Joaquin Valley residents gathered at the Capitol Mall in Sacramento Thursday for the report’s unveiling. They called on legislators to create comprehensive policy solutions that could stem the cycle of poverty and health issues that run rampant here.
Those health issues, which are multi-faceted and would likely take decades to remedy, perpetuate a cycle of despair, disproportionately impacting an area made up of San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, Mariposa, Madera, Fresno, Tulare, Kings and Kern counties.
The report lays bare the entrenched problems contributing to poor health throughout the valley that seem insurmountable, but sets out a foundation for progress.
“There really are two Californias. We talk about California and the coastal communities, and the extraordinary innovation and technology and wealth being created, then we talk about the heartland of California and you see a great divergence between the health status of individuals,” said Chet Hewitt, president and CEO of Sierra Health Foundation, which funded the report along with the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.
The report, “California’s San Joaquin Valley: a region and its children under stress,” highlights the health of children younger than 8 years old, 400,000 of whom live in poverty. Among the key findings:
- One in three valley children lives in poverty, and in more than half of San Joaquin Valley counties, more than 30 percent of all children live in neighborhoods with high poverty rates. Those counties include Fresno, Tulare, Kings, Madera and Kern.
- San Joaquin Valley is home to the largest number and highest percentage of schools where the drinking water does not meet regulatory standards. Tap water is unsafe to drink at one in four schools.
- San Joaquin Valley agriculture feeds the world, but those who work in the fields cannot afford to put food on their own dining room tables. More than a quarter of children don’t have access to nutritious foods. Despite that, or perhaps because of it, obesity impacts 25 percent of economically disadvantaged fifth-grade students.
- Valley children ages 10 to 17 face a greater risk of ending up in jail, with felony juvenile arrest rates higher in every county than the statewide average. The report chalks that up to harsh school disciplinary practices disproportionately impacting minorities and setting them on a school-to-prison pipeline.
Basic needs among children aren’t being met, the report states. When that occurs, vulnerable children are more likely to have inadequate access to healthy food, to live in communities with unsafe drinking water and harmful air pollution, to face discriminatory policies and practices in schools and to be exposed to violence in neighborhoods, the report states.
“Repeated exposure to adversities such as these produces toxic levels of stress that can have negative and long-lasting effects on learning, behavior and health,” the report states.
The report names four issues as priorities to address for children’s health: early education, healthy food, healthy living environments and equitable land use planning.
Thousands of children in the valley are eligible for government assistance for preschool programs, but just 28 percent of the region’s 25,718 eligible 3 year olds are enrolled. In Kern, 69 percent of 3 year olds are not enrolled.
That’s a missed opportunity to address achievement gaps, the report states.
Undocumented parents are less likely to enroll their kids in pre-kindergarten programs, despite those children gaining the most from high-quality programs. That’s likely because parents feel marginalized and excluded, the report states. One way to build trust between undocumented parents and schools is to provide more bilingual and dual immersion programs, the report states, allowing immigrant families to play greater roles in their children’s educations.
“This is about breaking the cycle of poverty in the San Joaquin Valley, and we must address this from all angles,” Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs said. “Every penny spent on education more than pays for itself through better employment and health, and lower need for prison and jail spending.”
The report found that community members most affected don’t feel their elected officials reflect them adequately. Turning the tide requires legislators who create policies that better distribute health-related opportunities in the valley, the report states.
“Community residents … emphasize that they are not seeking charity; rather they want to refashion their communities as places full of opportunities and resources that will allow them to succeed on their own terms,” the report states.