It seems that every day now we hear of the stock market reaching new heights. But in many communities around the country, the very real effects of the recession and the recent sequestration spending cuts have left many Americans even more in need. And while the media seized upon Congress making a fix when it came to airline delays, little has been done or written about the local food pantries that have closed, the health services that have been cut or the thousands of children who can no longer benefit from Head Start.
It is children who typically suffer most during economic hardship. Prolonged economic strains leave them even more vulnerable. A recent United Nations Children’s Fund report ranked the United States 26th of 29 countries in a study of child well-being among developed countries. As government resources continue to shrink, what can we do to ensure children get off to the right start? Orange County might provide the beginnings of a model.
Orange County is a community with a successful track record of protecting its vulnerable children through public-private partnerships and innovation. The Orangewood Children’s Foundation, for example, has worked with the county’s Social Services Agency to give shelter to survivors of abuse for over 30 years – and will soon welcome the first class of students into its state-of-the-art high school to help foster and other at-risk youth get a strong education. Healthy Smiles for Kids, meanwhile, has pioneered mobile dental health for children who otherwise would not get dental treatments regularly. And a wide variety of partners has made it possible for El Sol Science and Arts Academy to dramatically boost the academic performance of 900-plus low-income, mostly Latino, students – and now break ground on a wellness center for their families and the local neighborhood.
We are at a unique junction in time where grave risks to America’s children persist alongside technological advancements that could lead to innovative solutions in health care and education for kids. New, targeted initiatives within the Affordable Care Act, as well as the growing push for universal preschool hold enormous promise for our children if we can harness these opportunities.
With children becoming ever more vulnerable, Orange County should continue to blaze new trails in its leadership for children. The Children’s Partnership has identified several priority areas, all of which Orange County leaders can help support. The first is to be a megaphone to make sure Congress and the California Legislature are on the right side in supporting kids’ fair start in life. Orange County accounts for over 10 percent of California legislators. It can make its voice heard.
Second, Orange County leaders can help promote Affordable Care Act education and enrollment in health coverage. Roughly 11 percent of Orange County kids have been uninsured at some point during the last year. Educational efforts by county civic leaders, schools and child-care sites to boost enrollment can change this.
Third, leaders can support innovative, value-driven initiatives, such as electronic care coordination, for the county’s highest-risk youth, starting with those in foster care and the juvenile justice system. These are our most vulnerable kids – and every time they move, their health care information is in danger of being lost, hurting both the kids themselves and the county.
Allies, from the Children’s Partnership to local companies, are here to help ensure that Orange County continues this proud tradition at a time when our kids need it most.
Wendy Lazarus is founder & co-president of the Children’s Partnership.