KIDS COUNT 2021: Smart policy decisions can help improve Oklahoma’s dismal child well-being outcomes

Oklahoma children need housing, food, health care, educational opportunities, and stable, nurturing environments to succeed. These essentials, however, are out of reach for many Oklahomans as the result of poverty, structural racism, and other barriers. Oklahoma’s disparities for child well-being were evidenced by Oklahoma’s low overall rank (42nd) in the 2021 KIDS COUNT Data Book. Produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the KIDS COUNT Data Book is the most comprehensive annual report on child well-being in the United States. Due to the lag in data reporting, this year’s Data Book uses data from 2019, so the full effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on our state’s child well-being indicators has yet to be determined. 

Policymakers must take bold action to improve the well-being of Oklahoma children by focusing public investments on the success of the whole family, recognizing that the well-being of our children is intrinsically linked with the well-being of their parents. To make Oklahoma better for our children, we must build on our existing successes, accelerate improvements, and use the best available evidence to invest in programs and policies that will make the biggest difference for children in our state.

Compared to their peers in other states, Oklahoma students are falling behind

Despite modest Pre-K through 12 education funding increases during the last four years, lawmakers still have not adequately funded Oklahoma schools, which have received some of the deepest education cuts in the country in the last decade. Oklahoma’s public school system continues to serve a near-record number of students but is still plagued with overly large class sizes, deteriorating physical spaces, inadequate numbers of support staff, teacher retention, and more. These years of cuts have taken their toll on our students as they continue to rank well behind their peers nationwide in important measures of educational success. When evaluating test scores, nearly three out of four fourth-graders scored below proficient at reading level and three out of four eighth-graders scored below proficient at math level. Additionally, our state’s children aren’t graduating high school on time. Oklahoma is currently at the lowest percentage of high schoolers not graduating in four years since 2012, dropping 13 rankings in nine years. 

All children in this state need equitable access to high-quality public education. We can improve our students’ instructional quality by increasing resources for student support and by investing directly in our teachers by raising pay to the national average and indexing it to inflation. Currently, Oklahoma teachers make 71 cents on the dollar compared to other professionals with the same education and years of experience. Lastly, we should establish a continuity of education for children involved in or exiting the child welfare or youth justice systems. Becoming involved within these systems increases the frequency of changing schools. In turn, this disrupts a student’s academic progress and can cause repeated behavior problems, issues that are  compounded by the lower educational quality typically found within the youth justice system. 

Oklahoma’s health indicators show no improvement now, but Medicaid expansion is likely to create future improvements

Only five other states have a greater share of uninsured children than Oklahoma, where 86,000 children — roughly the population of Edmond — don’t have health insurance. When children can’t see a doctor or fulfill a prescription, a child’s health can be impacted, leading to missed days of school and lower educational attainment. Poor health can also trigger financial hardship and other family stressors. Fortunately, recently passed Medicaid expansion is likely to get more Oklahoma children health insurance as previously uninsured adults enroll for health care via expansion, they will be more likely to enroll their children in state health care programs such as Medicaid and CHIP; children are more likely to have health coverage and receive annual well-child visits once their guardians receive coverage. Health care access aside, Oklahoma ranks 40th nationally for the rate of child and teen deaths, most of which are caused by their environments. For example, the leading causes of premature death for children in the state are unintentional injury by motor vehicles (of which, only one in three were wearing proper seat restraint) and unsafe infant sleep practices.

The first step to improving Oklahoma’s child health indicators is to protect Medicaid expansion for adults and make it easier for all eligible Oklahomans to enroll and stay enrolled. Lawmakers should also look to make the American Rescue Plan Act’s temporary expansion of postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to a full year permanent in Oklahoma, improving long-term physical and mental health outcomes for the birthing parent and child both. Lastly, we should expand access to evidence-based parenting classes and home visiting services that can help prevent premature death. Due to state budget cuts, current home-based family support services are offered in 20 fewer counties than what was available four years ago

Modest improvements to family and community indicators don’t compete with other states’ progress

Environmental factors play a huge role in health outcomes, and the KIDS COUNT report highlighted several places where Oklahoma falls short in providing strong, stable home environments. Oklahoma also ranks 34th for the percentage of children living in high-poverty areas, which is defined as an area with a poverty rate of 20 percent or more. While the share of Oklahoma children living in these areas has decreased in the past decade, other states are doing better; as a result, we’ve fallen from 31st to 33rd during that time. Similarly, although we’ve cut Oklahoma’s high teen birth rate in the last decade, 46 states still have lower teen birth rates, giving Oklahoma an outsize share of households where the birthing parent is between 15-19 years of age. Finally, one in 10 Oklahoma children are growing up in families where the head of household lacks a high school diploma, which can predict lower educational attainment for children living in that environment.

State and local governments should invest in affordable and reliable public transportation in order to connect families that are overburdened and underserved to jobs and essential services like grocery stores and medical care. Furthermore, our governments should use data to inform where they locate resources such as libraries, job training programs, and other services that can help mitigate any harmful impacts of living in a high-poverty neighborhood. Lastly, Oklahoma should continue to lower its teen birth rate by expanding access to comprehensive sex education and contraception.

Oklahoma’s child economic well-being indicators worsened even before the COVID-19 pandemic

Oklahoma’s future economic success depends on supporting families and making economic investments that ensure their economic well-being is secure. As Oklahoma lawmakers focused on shrinking state government and cutting spending on safety net programs during the past two decades, Oklahomans now have one-fourth less services than they did at the beginning of 2000. This has led to stagnant progress at lowering our child poverty ranking, the tenth worst ranking in the nation. Currently, one in five Oklahoma children live in households with an income of $25,926 for a family of two adults and two children. Although the biggest change in economic well-being indicators comes from the percentage of children living in households with a high housing cost burden. In 2011, Oklahoma was ranked seventh in the country with one in three children living in households that spent more than 30 percent of their income on housing. While the current data shows that this percentage has decreased to 26 percent, our national ranking continued to worsen, showing other states have made considerable progress in this area over Oklahoma. 

This legislative session, Oklahoma lawmakers made an important first step to help low-income working families keep more of their earnings by making the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) once again refundable. However, by choosing to decouple the state EITC from the federal EITC,  the state credit will no longer be indexed to inflation, meaning the power of this credit will eventually decrease over time. If Oklahoma lawmakers are serious about supporting Oklahoma workers, they would be better served by increasing the EITC, recoupling it to the federal rate, and implementing targeted tax cuts that benefit low-income, working families. Lawmakers can also help working parents return to the workforce through policies that support working families, such as expanding access to paid family and medical leave. Lawmakers can also support working Oklahomans through an increased minimum wage, which hasn’t changed in 12 years. The current minimum wage simply is not enough to cover basic monthly expenses. At the very least, legislators should allow cities to have more local control on the issue, which can be done by overturning the 2014 legislation that preempts localities in the state from passing their own minimum wage increases

Elected officials should show Oklahoma prioritizes children through their actions 

If we polled every Oklahoma lawmaker, it is likely that each of them would say that protecting and supporting children is among their top concerns. However, the most recent KIDS COUNT data makes clear that Oklahoma has not prioritized our children’s health, education, or well-being. It’s sobering to think that today’s underserved eighth-graders will be legal adults in just five short years. Soon, we will be counting on them to step into their roles as workforce members, parents, volunteers, and community leaders. If we truly want a better future for all of us, we need to focus on policies and budget priorities that can ensure better outcomes for our children now so they can reach their full potential. For Oklahoma’s children of color and those from families with low incomes, these investments can help overcome the systemic barriers created by racism and poverty. Through strategic, data-driven decisions that prioritize their well-being, we can give all Oklahoma children an equal opportunity to succeed. Until then, Oklahoma will be resigned to remaining a bottom 10 state for children. 

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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