By Omar Passons
I am a native San Diegan, and for as long as I can remember, our leaders have confused funding big buildings, like stadiums, with doing big things for San Diegans, like creating more affordable homes or supporting children and families. That has to stop.
We have thousands of people living on the streets and an education system that is not adequately preparing all of our children for success. Meanwhile, our local governments focus too much on ribbon-cutting and catchy slogans and not enough on the people who live here.
The cost and lack of flexibility in high-quality child care is a drain on families of all incomes and we must take this issue seriously now!
It is time for San Diego County to fully support children and parents so that every person raised in our community has a meaningful opportunity to achieve his or her full potential. We need universally available, high-quality child care and pre-school for every child, rich or poor, and in every neighborhood.
Advances in scientific research have clarified the importance of a child’s earliest experiences. We now know that our basic brain architecture is built in the first 5 years of life through exploration, play, talk and loving interactions with family and all caregivers. This means that early support for children and their families pays huge dividends. Nobel Prize-winning economist Dr. James Heckman has demonstrated that there is a 13-to-1 return on every dollar invested from birth to age 5 due to avoided future costs like special education, juvenile justice and health care. The smart allocation of money is early and sustained.
Investing in San Diego’s children and families of all income levels is also good for business. Employees can give their full attention to their jobs knowing their children are safe and learning. Each year, U.S. businesses lose billions of dollars to absenteeism and poor productivity caused by unreliable child-care arrangements. And the lack of affordable, quality child care causes parents to drop out of the workforce: The San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce recently found that San Diego has the lowest female labor force participation among 10 competitor cities. This hurts our economic competitiveness as a region.
I know personally that support makes a difference because I am living proof. I was born in San Diego and almost immediately went into our county-funded foster care system. Through supportive systems, a safety net of nutritious food, educational support and guidance, I was able to thrive. I earned a master’s degree in public health as well as a law degree, and practiced law for a decade in construction and land use. I’ve given back as a member of this community as a volunteer, a fundraiser and a leader. It has all been possible because of high-quality early support as a child. I had no control over how my life started, but I am now in a position to make a positive difference for my community. Failing to support our children is leaving talent on the table and our government, together with our business, nonprofit and philanthropic communities, can help.
I have watched for years as our tax dollars seem to evaporate while San Diego kids and families struggle. It is time to put people first. Shifting our focus to make our region’s children the top priority will bring the cost of living down and push quality of life up. To be sure, we must get the cost of housing under control and we must address the homelessness on our streets. But the single best thing we can do to improve the quality of life for the San Diegans in the long term is to prioritize youth. To do this, we must take a major leap towards universal high-quality child care available to all families who want it, not merely at the lowest and highest ends of the income scale, but ALL families.
Governor Jerry Brown signed AB 377 into law, which enables San Diego County to take critical planning steps for increasing the availability of high-quality child care. The onus is now on our region to realize that our regional competitiveness, the strength of our workforce and creating true equal opportunity all demand that every child has access to the early development that quality child care provides.
We must make San Diego not just a world-class region known for great weather and life sciences, but the best place in America to raise a family. It is our turn as San Diegans to put the people’s needs first. We must redefine what doing big things for San Diegans means. This starts with our children. They are our future.
— Omar Passons is an attorney and youth advocate and a candidate for the County Board of Supervisors, District 4.