Oklahoma missing opportunities to give young adult parents and their kids a boost

The first years of adulthood are a crucial time in anyone’s life. Many Oklahomans ages 18 to 24 are taking their first steps toward independence, whether they’re in college or just entering the workforce. These are also key years for brain development and learning critical decision-making skills. When these young people are also new parents of young children, these two most sensitive stages in development coincide. By targeting investment and support to families at this stage of their lives, we have an opportunity to strengthen multiple generations of Oklahomans.

Unfortunately, Oklahoma’s 62,000 young adult parents face hurdles to support their children and fulfill their own potential, according to Opening Doors for Young Parents, the latest KIDS COUNT® policy report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation. The fifty-state report reveals that, at 18 percent, Oklahoma is well above the national average (10 percent) of residents age 18 to 24 who are also parents. These families have limited access to opportunities to advance their education and find family-sustaining jobs.

The report highlights the following statewide trends and areas of concern:

  • 66,000 children in Oklahoma have young parents ages 18 to 24.
  • 74 percent of children of young parents in Oklahoma live in low-income families, which is above the national average (69 percent).
  • Only eight percent of young parents ages 18 to 24 have completed an associate’s degree or higher.
  • 47 percent of Oklahoma’s young parents are people of color, facing challenges exacerbated by discrimination and systemic inequities, with their children standing to suffer the most.

Too many of these young families in Oklahoma don’t have the chances they need to get ahead. Without access to quality child care, health care, higher education and other vital supports, we’re leaving young parents and their children behind.

The report spotlights a national population of more than 6 million, including 2.9 million young adult parents, ages 18 to 24, and 3.4 million children nationwide living with young parents. Opening Doors for Young Parents illuminates the most common obstacles young adult parents face, including incomplete education, lack of family-sustaining employment opportunities, lack of access to quality child care, inadequate and unstable housing, and financial insecurity.

These barriers threaten not only these young adults, but also their young children, setting off a chain of diminished opportunities for two generations. But the report includes recommendations for addressing the obstacles that young parents face, most of which can be driven by policy solutions at the state level. These include pairing workforce education and training programs with child care and housing assistance; providing child care to student parents on college campuses; reducing or eliminating loan or debt collection penalties that keep young parents from working; investing in proven maternal health and home visiting programs; providing career and educational opportunities to young parents who are themselves in foster care; and more.

[pullquote]We must do better to give young parents a path to success, or else Oklahoma will continue to fall further behind the nation on poverty, on incarceration, and on many other social problems.[/pullquote]

Oklahoma should also reverse course on the plan to take away Medicaid health benefits from parents who don’t meet strict work and reporting requirements, which will have the greatest harmful impact on our state’s young parents at one of the most vulnerable times in they and their children’s lives. Instead, the state should accept federal dollars to expand health coverage and make sure these families can access the doctors and treatments they need to be healthy and financially stable.

The Casey Foundation stresses the importance of a two-generation approach to equip young parents for success. “If we don’t support young people when they become parents, we are cheating two generations out of having a positive future,” warned Casey Foundation President and CEO Patrick McCarthy. “We can help young adult parents develop the skills they need to raise their children, contribute to their communities, and drive our national economy forward.”

It’s extremely important that we help Oklahoma’s young parents stay healthy and get access to educational and employment opportunities. We must do better to give these parents a path to success, or else Oklahoma will continue to fall further behind the nation on poverty, on incarceration, and on many other social problems.

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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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