The coronavirus pandemic is having a devastating impact on children and families in Oklahoma, and its toll on communities of color is even more severe. In November, Oklahoma saw a new record spike with daily cases doubling to more than 3,000 in a matter of weeks. While many families are grappling with the illness itself, many more are facing the unexpected economic toll of the pandemic from lost wages, lack of child care, and school closures.
All children in Oklahoma deserve to have their basic needs met, especially during these unprecedented times. Unfortunately, data from a new KIDS COUNT® report show that too many Oklahoma families are struggling to weather this public health crisis. Using data from a U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey, the report highlights four key areas or pain points — health, mental health, hunger, and housing instability — that are significantly impacting child well-being. Using these data to address holes in our pandemic response is critical to addressing children’s immediate needs.
Families with children are facing a significant economic toll from the pandemic
Data from the latest KIDS COUNT® report, “Kids, Families and COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and the Urgent Need to Respond” show that COVID-19 is having a profound economic impact on Oklahoma families with children. Forty percent of Oklahoma adults living in households with children reported having difficulty paying for usual household expenses. Many of these families are also grappling with housing insecurity. In October, nearly one in three households with children reported they are very or extremely likely to leave their home due to eviction or foreclosure in the next two months. The economic toll of the pandemic is also making it difficult for many families to provide adequate food for their children. More than one in eight Oklahoma families sometimes or often do not have enough food to eat during the current public health crisis.
Oklahoma children need more access to health care
Access to health care is always vital, but it is especially urgent as families face the novel coronavirus. Unfortunately, Oklahoma ranked in the top three states where families with children lacked health insurance. More than one in six households do not have health insurance, which means that many families struggle to provide their children with adequate medical care when they become ill. Accessing mental health care is equally necessary during the pandemic as families and children cope with heightened stress, isolation, and uncertainty. Roughly one-quarter of all Oklahoma households with children reported feeling down, depressed, or hopeless throughout the pandemic.
The pandemic is having a disproportionate impact on children of color
The pandemic has magnified racial inequalities that have long existed as a result of historical and present day discriminatory practices. This legacy has left many children and families of color in an even more precarious position and without the resources they need during this public health emergency. Census data indicates that some non-white families — those who identify as Latinx, two or more races, or other — lack health insurance at about twice the rate of white families. Children of color are also more likely to face housing insecurity. Oklahoma Black and Latinx families were two times as likely to report that they had little to no confidence in paying their next rent or mortgage payment than white families.
Unfortunately, the U.S. Census survey does not include data specifically for American Indians and some other racial categories. Results from the Tulsa SEED study, which surveyed parents of Tulsa Public School 1st graders during the pandemic, indicates that Oklahoma’s American Indian children are also facing significant challenges. Fifty-two percent of American Indian and 61 percent of Latinx families are struggling with food insecurity compared to 28 percent of white families. The SEED Study data gives important insight into how the pandemic is impacting American Indian children, and gathering a more complete state-wide picture is critical to response efforts.
Recognizing the need for specific data for American Indians, Muscogee (Creek) Principal Chief David Hill noted, “It is so crucial for the Muscogee Nation that we have accurate representation of our people perhaps now more than ever. We are in the midst of a global pandemic, and our Nation provides vital services and care to some of our most vulnerable citizens. Proper data is critical for us to do the most good, especially when so many are in need.” Collecting comprehensive state-level data that includes all racial categories is necessary to effectively utilize resources, and to ensure we are meeting the needs of all children.
Immediate action is needed to meet children’s basic health and safety
The Oklahoma Policy Institute, which has been the Oklahoma affiliate for KIDS COUNT® since 2018, calls on state elected officials, policy makers, and Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation to put children and families first in our ongoing COVID-19 response efforts. Addressing pain points for Oklahoma families is crucial not only to ensure children’s immediate health and safety, but to secure a robust recovery from this crisis in the years to come. Policies that can help address children’s immediate needs and set Oklahoma on a path to a strong recovery are:
- Increasing revenue and prioritizing resources for essential services like education, health care, and social services,
- Expanding Medicaid immediately to speed the health and economic benefits it brings to our state;
- Providing schools funding to hire enough school counselors and mental health professionals to meet the recommended ratio of 250 to 1;
- Restoring refundability of Oklahoma’s earned income tax credit (EITC) for working families;
- Immediately addressing the COVID emergency in Oklahoma prisons along with continued criminal justice reforms to break the cycle of incarceration, court debt, and rearrest;
- Transitioning all juvenile justice status hearings from in-person to virtual, and granting medical and compassionate release programs all low-level juvenile offenders;
- Suspending juvenile court fines and fees as well as detention for technical violations through the duration of the public health crisis;
- Providing tenants with legal help and representation if they should have to navigate the eviction process;
- Increasing the time between eviction notices and hearings to give families sufficient time to find help and respond to an eviction notice.
The KIDS COUNT® policy report, “Kids, Families and COVID-19: Pandemic Pain Points and the Urgent Need to Respond,” is a reminder that Oklahoma’s most immediate and pressing business is to adequately respond to the ongoing pandemic. This public health crisis places considerable health and economic toll on all families, and children of color are facing a disproportionate impact. Our leaders should prioritize those communities that are facing higher levels of food, housing, and economic insecurity and put equity first. Ensuring children have their basic needs met is vital to their immediate health and safety. Despite the upcoming budget challenges, Oklahoma has the resources to address children and families’s basic needs. It is urgent that state leaders prioritize Oklahoma children now, and pave the way for our state’s recovery.
To learn more about OK Policy’s child wellness work as part of the KIDS COUNT® network, visit okpolicy.org/kidscount. To learn more about the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s KIDS COUNT® national work, visit www.aecf.org/kidscount.