Improving future for Oklahoma children will require long-term investments today

The future of Oklahoma requires a shared commitment to ensure that our children are safe, healthy, educated, and thriving within their communities. However, a recent national report shows Oklahoma remains in the bottom 10 of states for overall child well-being. Produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book is the most comprehensive annual report on child well-being in the United States, collecting data in four domains: economic well-being, health, family and community, and education. This year’s Data Book also offers a glimpse into the mental health challenges faced by children across the country. According to the most recent data available, nearly 1 in 8 Oklahoma children and teens experienced anxiety and depression in 2020. This and other challenges create a difficult landscape for Oklahoma children to navigate in order to thrive. However, a bold commitment from our state’s decision-makers could create investments in our children and their families that can get our children back on a path for success. 

Economic well-being improved due to federal investment 

Of the four domains tracked by the KIDS COUNT Data Book, economic well-being is the only area in which Oklahoma improved, moving up from 33rd to 32nd in this year’s report. The federal government’s robust investment in public programs and direct, monetary support to families during the pandemic helped drive improvements seen in this category. For example, the federal expansion of the Child Tax Credit and expansion of the free school lunch program kept many working families afloat during economically tumultuous times. While Oklahoma saw federal investments temporarily strengthen the economic security of nearly half a million families, work remains for state-level investments to address the fact that slightly more than 1 in 5 Oklahoma children are growing up in poverty, defined as annual earnings of $26,200 for a family of four. 

To improve economic security for working families, Oklahoma should closely examine its minimum wage, which has not been adjusted since the last time the federal wage was increased in 2009. When parents earn low wages, their ability to provide resources and support their child’s development is hindered, impacting children’s health and ability to thrive in school. Increasing the minimum wage has been shown to decrease child maltreatment, improve birth outcomes, and significantly improve overall child health outcomes. In 2020, nearly a quarter of a million Oklahoma children would have benefited and had their economic security improved immediately with a higher minimum wage. Oklahoma should also provide targeted tax relief to the working Oklahoma families who need it most. Our state can do this by strengthening and expanding the Sales Tax Relief Credit and Earned Income Tax Credit. Doing this would provide targeted tax relief while not reducing funding for core services that our families rely on. 

Oklahoma’s health rankings mirror alarming national trend 

Oklahoma’s health rankings held steady at 42nd nationally. However, our state followed an alarming national health trend with an increase in its child and teen death rate (36 per 100,000 in 2020, compared to 33 per 100,000 the previous year). This increase is being driven by firearms fatalities and drug overdoses. For the first time ever, firearms (including homicides, suicides, and accidental deaths) eclipsed car accidents to become the number one cause of death for Oklahoma children. The death of any child is troubling and has grave impacts on a family and their community. Because so many child and teen deaths are preventable, these numbers should spur elected officials and policymakers to take action to improve gun safety measures, as well as making mental health and substance use disorders treatments more readily available for Oklahoma youth.  

Although the coverage gains Oklahoma children have experienced in the past year due to Medicaid expansion are not yet reflected in this year’s dataset, it does demonstrate how necessary this investment into our people was. In 2020, 86,000 Oklahoma children lacked health insurance. Being unable to see a doctor or fill a prescription can have serious impacts on a child’s overall health, as well as school readiness and attendance. However, thanks to Medicaid expansion, children are more likely to gain coverage and attend well-child visits once their parents gain coverage through expansion. . 

If Oklahoma wants to improve its health rankings, it needs to continue to protect Medicaid expansion for adults and make it easier for all eligible Oklahomans to enroll and stay enrolled in health coverage. It should also make the temporary expansion of pregnancy and postpartum coverage under Medicaid permanent, so we can improve birth outcomes, most of which are worse than national averages

Family and community rankings show need for further investments 

When families live in safe communities with good schools and robust support services, their children are more likely to thrive. However, the 2022 KIDS COUNT Data Book shows that Oklahoma families aren’t getting the support they need.. Nearly 1 in 10 Oklahoma children live in high-poverty areas, meaning they live in a census tract where the poverty rate for the total population is 30 percent or more. Additionally, 1 in 3 Oklahoma children live in single-parent families, and 1 in 10 live in a family in which the household head lacks a high school diploma. Such startling numbers indicate that too many Oklahoma families may lack resources to help their children reach their fullest potential. Additionally, these families are also more likely to be experiencing economic strain from only having one income source, parents working multiple jobs, child care costs and lack of availability, and/or lower earning potential for the wage earners’ lifetime. 

Oklahoma can improve its family and community rankings by expanding comprehensive supports for low-income families that can also bolster our state’s workforce development. This includes expanding access to child care subsidy so parents can further their education or job training. We should also expand access to home visiting programs that work with at-risk families to screen for issues like postpartum depression, provide direct education and family supports, and make referrals and coordinate services. State budget cuts have forced these vital services to be offered in 20 fewer counties than what was available four years ago, leaving many rural families without access.

Oklahoma’s education rankings remain stagnant 

Oklahoma maintained its 45th ranking in education as students continue to score lower on fourth-grade reading and eighth-grade math tests than students in the rest of the United States. Due to pandemic-related delays in data collection from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Assessment of Educational Progress, this report relies on 2019 data for reading and math scores. In 2019 , 71 percent of Oklahoma’s fourth graders are not proficient in reading (compared to 66 percent in the United States) and 74 percent of Oklahoma eighth graders are not proficient in math (compared to 67 percent in the United States). Oklahoma spends $1,000-$2,000 less in per pupil spending compared to neighboring states. This is concerning given that higher per pupil spending is positively associated with better academic outcomes for children. We can only begin to imagine the potential our students could reach if they were given that same level of investment. 

Improving our state’s education rankings will take a commitment from legislators to fully fund public education in Oklahoma, which currently is experiencing an unprecedented teacher shortage and a record number of emergency certified teachers going into the 2022-2023 school year. Fully funding our schools would mean districts can hire teachers, counselors, and administrative staff and pay them a competitive wage.It also means schools have enough funding to purchase curriculum and supplies, maintain school buildings, adequately support special education, and provide robust extracurricular programming for all students. Although the state has experienced record inflation during the past year, the state’s education funding remained flat. Rising costs from inflation mean Oklahoma schools will have less funds to pay for materials, building maintenance, and staff salaries. It is vital that we adequately fund our state’s public schools because they are available in every community and to every child regardless of academic ability or ability to pay. 

However, improving educational outcomes will take a commitment from decision-makers to support families and their children in all aspects of their life. The KIDS COUNT Data Book shows Oklahoma students are more likely to be living in poverty, have experienced trauma, and have poor health outcomes than children in most other states. This makes it significantly harder for Oklahoma students to stay on track and excel in school. Fully funded public education would remedy this by providing all students access to resources and services they need for long-term success.  However, education outcomes don’t exist in a bubble. The odds will remain stacked against many Oklahoma children unless the state meaningfully invests to improve all areas of child well-being: economic well-being, health, and family and community. Otherwise, Oklahoma will remain firmly entrenched among the bottom 10 states for education. 

Our children and families are worth investing in 

This year’s KIDS COUNT Data Book makes it clear that our state is continuing to fail our children by not prioritizing their needs and the needs of their families. There are policy solutions and investments that elected officials and policymakers can utilize to improve outcomes for Oklahoma children. In only a few short years, the children who are currently suffering from Oklahoma’s poor policy choices will be called upon to step up into their roles as workforce members, parents, and community leaders. If state leaders are not investing in their success now, we are setting our state up for future failure. However, through strategic, data-driven investments that prioritize children and families, we can equip all Oklahoma children with the tools they need to succeed. This is Oklahoma’s surest path to success for generations to come. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Gabrielle Jacobi joined the Oklahoma Policy Institute as its Child Well-Being Policy Analyst / KIDS COUNT Coordinator in March 2021 after more than two years as a Program Coordinator at the Oklahoma Partnership for School Readiness. Born and raised in Oklahoma City, Gabrielle earned her Bachelor of Science in Journalism with a minor in Spanish Language and Literature from the University of Kansas. While there, she worked for four years at KU’s Center of Public Partnerships and Research, which spurred a passion for child advocacy and showed the impact that public policy and programming can have on families. Currently, she is working on her Master of Public Administration and Graduate Certificate in Disaster Management from the University of Central Oklahoma, and she expects to graduate in December 2021. She lives in Oklahoma City where she proudly cheers on both the Kansas Jayhawks and the Oklahoma City Thunder basketball teams.

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