To help kids, help parents

mother and child
Photo by Rolands Lakis.

About 168,000 children age 5 and younger in Oklahoma live in low-income families (making less than 200 percent of the poverty threshold, or $47,000 for a family of four). Like most families in America, the parents of these young children must juggle the demands of work, child care, school, and family time. Yet balancing those priorities can be impossible for parents without affordable child care, a predictable work schedule, or dependable transportation. The lack of a stable and enriching environment for kids in this crucial time in their lives can block the path out of poverty and lead to lifelong difficulties. Of those 168,000 children, 31 percent had parents expressing concern that their child was experiencing developmental delays.

These challenges are the focus of a new policy report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Creating Opportunity for Families: A two-generation approach.” The Foundation has long advocated for policies to boost children’s well-being. They sponsor the National KIDS COUNT data center that’s operated in Oklahoma by the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy. Over decades of research, the Casey Foundation has found  that increasing the overall financial stability of low-income families is vital for helping kids. They write:

A parent working multiple jobs to make ends meet without paid time off struggles to foster his or her child’s healthy growth on meager resources and bandwidth. A child raised in poverty is more likely to become an adult living in poverty — less likely to graduate from high school or remain consistently employed.3 Forty-two percent of children born to parents at the bottom of the income ladder stay there.

what-it-takes-to-raise-a-familyOklahoma’s already-high child poverty levels and data showing it’s harder to get ahead in Oklahoma than in most other states make this problem especially relevant for our state. Unfortunately, many state and federal programs aimed at alleviating poverty do not consider the needs of the whole family. For example, employment and job training programs often don’t help parents find affordable child care or get paid time off to care for a sick child. Although nearly 25 percent of college students are parents, colleges and universities do little to help students meet their parenting responsibilities while keeping up with school.

The Annie E. Casey Foundation report makes numerous recommendations to address these blind spots in our poverty-fighting strategy. The recommendations include:

  • Strengthen income supports for parents. They recommend expanding the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), which have been proven to improve child achievement and encourage work. Increasing and making refundable the Child Tax Credit for parents of very young children would especially ease the burden of poverty during this critical stage.
  • Encourage family-friendly workplace policies. California, New Jersey and Rhode Island have all passed laws required employers to provide paid family leave, but the United States still trails most of the world in guaranteeing paid family leave. Businesses can also be encouraged to adopt family-friendly scheduling policies, such as the retailer COSTCO’s policy of providing employee work schedules in advance to help workers balance family commitments.
  • Better integrate state and federal anti-poverty programs to reach whole families. States can take a “no-wrong-door” approach to connect families with needed programs, in the way that Louisiana uses SNAP eligibility data to automatically enroll kids in its Children’s Health Insurance Program. In fact, Oklahoma is already a national leader in this area. Oklahoma does a great job automatically enrolling eligible newborns in Medicaid, and a nationally-praised pilot program in Tulsa is linking Head Start early childhood education services with intensive parental support and job training.

These are just a few of the recommendations in the full report. If Oklahoma’s legislators and Governor are interested in pro-family policies that will actually work, this research provides plenty to go on.

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Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

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