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Friday, Apr 19 2013 11:00 PM

An investment state can't afford to skip

By The Bakersfield Californian

If ever a social program that's been sentenced to the budgetary gallows deserved a reprieve, it is this one. Cal-SAFE, a $46 million program that keeps teen mothers on track for graduation and teaches them how to care for their babies, among other benefits, isn't state-funded day care. It's an investment in people. Too touchy-feely for you? In more tangible terms that speak to this age of austerity, it's an economic investment that gives and keeps giving. Teen motherhood is both a symptom and a cause of many social and economic troubles, ranging from the never-ending cycle of welfare-dependent families to an undereducated workforce that frustrates cities' ability to attract new employers.

Plenty of programs can make the claim that their continued survival generates economic benefits down the road. There's no question that lawmakers' duty to decide what should go and what should stay in the state budget, using Gov. Jerry Brown's local control funding formula, is a difficult one. Nobody wants their programs cut, and many have compelling arguments for them.

None are more compelling than that of Cal-SAFE, the California School Age Families Education Program. Cal-SAFE provides support services to expectant and parenting students, as well as child development and early education programs for their children. The overwhelming majority of Cal-SAFE enrolled students, about 95 percent, are females.

More than 73 percent of the students enrolled in Cal-SAFE have successfully completed their high school education, according to a 2010 report by the California Department of Education. Compare that with young mothers who don't have access to a Cal-SAFE program: Only 30 percent complete high school. Cal-SAFE is also effective in preventing second and third pregnancies in teens. Only 8.47 percent of the babies born while their parents were enrolled in the program represented repeat pregnancies, compared with a 20 percent national repeat birth rate.

This is especially significant in Kern County, which has one of the highest, if not the highest teen birthrate in California. The rate in both California and the U.S. is 34 per 1,000 girls aged 15 to 19. Kern County numbers are nearly double that: 56 per 1,000. If Kern were a state unto itself, it would be neck-and-neck with Mississippi for highest teen birthrate in the nation.

It's no coincidence that Kern County has one of the highest poverty rates in America and one of the lowest levels of eductional attainment. Economics say all of those factors are interrelated.

The Department of Education's 2010 report on Cal-SAFE's impact also makes a compelling argument in favor of children's health. Babies born to Cal-SAFE mothers weigh more than those born to other teen mothers, a logical indicator that both baby and mom are better nourished and likely more healthy than they otherwise might be. And about 95 percent of children enrolled in Cal-SAFE-sponsored child care programs are up to date with their immunizations, compared with 81 percent statewide.

We still have some questions, however. Cal-SAFE says that "66 percent of the students who exited the Cal-SAFE Program indicated that they would pursue further education or employment, with 28.4 percent planning to enroll in a local community college." What percentage has actually achieved this goal? And how many have managed to avoid becoming dependent on welfare? Those are crucial indicators of the long-term benefits of the program, including its future costs to taxpayers. If we're willing to pony up to help these kids now, should we be expected to continue doing so into their adult years? It's a tough but valid question, and one that lawmakers should demand answers to as they debate the fate of the program.

But based on the returns the Legislature has seen so far, Cal-SAFE is making an undeniably positive impact on young lives -- and most likely on the state's future economy.

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