One of America’s most progressive new political leaders is a white, middle-aged man

Total recall?
Total recall?
Image: Reuters/Mike Blake
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Gavin Newsom, 51, will be sworn in today (Jan. 7) as California’s newest governor—and his budget suggests that he plans to make families a priority.

According to the New York Times, Newsom’s first budget will include a proposal to give families six months of paid leave after the birth of a child, by far the most generous offer among US states. (There is no federal paid parental leave in the US; five other states offer it, as well as the District of Columbia, offering between four and 12 weeks.)

Newsom does not detail how he plans to pay for the initiative, which leads one to wonder whether it will happen. But as Quartz’s Dan Kopf points out, California’s 2018-2019 budget features a $9 billion surplus. Newsom is also backing an aggressive early childhood agenda: His advisors told the Los Angeles Times that he will propose spending about $1.8 billion on programs aimed at increasing California’s enrollment in early education and child-care programs.

His approach is not the typical one, which tends to overly focus on universal pre-kindergarten as a way of investing in families. Many early childhood advocates argue that investing in pre-K means starting too late. Investing in families and children in the first few years of life has a bigger impact, economists argue. This can come in the form of cash transfers for poor families, home-visiting programs to educate new parents on how they can support babies’ brain development, and high-quality child care. Indeed, a 1970s experiment in Jamaica offers strong evidence for the efficacy of home-visiting programs; high-quality early child care also has a strong evidence base from the Perry Preschool Program in Michigan and the Abecedarian program in North Carolina. And paid family leave? Well, economists agree that it helps an economy’s GDP by increasing women’s employment, supports child development and child outcomes, and may even make for happier parents.

Newsom’s budget, according to the LA Times, includes:

  • $750-million for kindergarten funding, to expand facilities to allow full-day programs
  • $747 million to help train child-care workers and expand local facilities already subsidized by the state, and help parents who attend state colleges and universities
  • $125 million to expand pre-K programs, phased in over three years
  • $200 million for home visits for low-income expecting parents and expanded programs for health-care screenings for young children

For now, these are just proposals; the test of Newsom’s mettle will be to see what he can fund. He has other major problems to deal with, including the fact that California has the highest poverty rate in the US, massive income inequality, and a rapidly growing homelessness problem. Nor is he not the first to push for additional early childhood funding in recent years: As the LA Times points out, that has been a key demand of the Legislative Women’s Caucus. However, one lawmaker pointed out that Newsom’s early focus on families is promising: “Quite frankly, to start out with a January proposal that includes that investment in California’s children reflects a new day,” state senator Holly J. Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) told the paper.

California already offers six weeks of partially paid leave for parents, and an additional six weeks of disability for birth mothers. The leave is funded with employees’ payroll taxes. But families need more. As James Heckman, a Nobel laureate in economics, has shown, investing in kids early has a far higher rate of return when compared to trying to “fix” drop-out rates, crime, incarceration, and the physical and mental health toll of poverty and exclusion.

Newsom seems to have gotten the memo. Let’s see what he can do now that he holds the reins of power.