Policies that support low-income families improve the well-being of children. Policymakers have a number of options for improving economic prospects for Oklahoma’s working families and in turn improving health – including their mental health. Two practical changes are to restore the refundability of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and increase the minimum wage. Bills that would make these changes did not move last legislative session, indicating they are not a priority for legislators, but they should be. Both of these policy changes would provide more economic stability for families, reducing the risk of childhood trauma and poor mental health. Improving the financial well-being of families creates healthier and economically thriving communities.
The stress of living in poverty is traumatic
Working parents who do not make enough money to pay their rent or put enough food on the table are under chronic and intense stress. Families experiencing poverty face day-to-day decision-making that involves difficult trade-offs. A simple trip to the grocery store can become a complicated math problem when monthly earnings won’t cover a family’s basic needs. Parents have to ask themselves if they should pay their electric bill or fix their car so they can continue to get to work. These are impossible decisions.
With fewer resources, daily tasks often demand more time and energy than they do for people who have money. Researchers call this burden “cognitive load” – the unending stress that comes with living in scarcity. A number of poor health outcomes are associated with chronic stress, including malnutrition, sleep deprivation, and depression. This can make it challenging for parents experiencing poverty to meet their child’s physical and emotional needs. Because of this, their children often experience the harmful impact of chronic stress, too.
Growing up in a home without enough resources to get by is an Adverse Childhood Experience (ACE). It is perhaps the most significant ACE because it is related to many others. ACEs cause toxic stress, which makes the body’s fight or flight response kick into overdrive. Heart rate and blood pressure increase, and the brain is flooded with harmful levels of stress-related hormones. When this happens repeatedly,children have difficulty learning new information, managing emotions, and have weaker immune systems. As adults, children who experience this kind of trauma are at an increased risk for chronic health problems, including diabetes, heart disease, depression, and substance use disorders, that are expensive and difficult to manage
The good news is that the negative outcomes of chronic stress can be reversed. Once the chronic stress is lifted, the brain can resume normal, less stressful decision-making patterns. As a result, parents have more time and energy to parent their children, and their children experience less stress as a result. Families will experience less chronic stress if they have enough money to make ends meet. Increasing the minimum wage would help ensure that working families earn enough to meet their basic needs. A living wage and restoring the refundability of the EITC, would increase the economic stability of families living in poverty.
Fair economic policy can alleviate stress and reduce the negative impact of trauma in Oklahoma
The Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) supplements the income of workers with children in low-wage jobs. In 2016, the Legislature made the state EITC non-refundable as part of an attempt to deal with a budget shortfall. Before this change, families claiming the credit would get money back in their tax refund. Now, if the credit exceeds how much a parent owes in the state in taxes, the state keeps the remainder of the money instead of returning it. Restoring the refundability of the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) is crucial for Oklahoma’s working families, particularly families who are struggling to make ends meet. A single parent with two kids working full-time at $10.00 an hour lost more than $200 last year because the EITC was not refundable. The influx of cash to cover immediate needs or save for future expenses reduces stress on single parents, which in turn reduces stress on the whole family and improves the environment at home.
Increasing the minimum wage also increases the stability and well-being of families. Oklahoma parents are working hard, but low wages mean they still struggle to provide for their families, making it more likely their children will experience chronic stress and trauma. In order for an Oklahoman working a minimum wage job to afford a one-bedroom apartment at the fair market rate, they have to work 66 hours each week just to pay their rent. Increasing the minimum wage would reduce the likelihood of Adverse Childhood Experiences because when families are more economically stable, home environments become less stressful.
Combating childhood trauma will make Oklahoma a Top Ten state
The consequences of widespread childhood trauma in Oklahoma are dire. Oklahoma cannot be a top ten state while so many of our children are experiencing the trauma that comes with living in poverty. Until policymakers recognize that Oklahomans are suffering because of the lingering effects of this trauma and take action to alleviate it, we will continue to see poor health, educational, and economic outcomes. Restoring the refundability of the EITC and increasing the minimum wage are simple fixes that are a worthwhile investment in the future of our state.