In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn, Oklahoma’s Legislature will be facing some tough budgetary challenges in the coming fiscal years. While temporary measures have likely buoyed next year’s state budget, lawmakers in the coming years will, short of a miracle economic recovery, face revenue shortfalls requiring either revenue increases or spending cuts. Typically, our lawmakers have opted for the latter choice, which has slowed our economic recovery and contributed to our state rank of 48th in per-student education spending. After a decade of stagnant state budgets and systematic underfunding of state services, Oklahoma’s children cannot afford additional cuts to the core services. If we want Oklahoma’s children to recover quickly from the COVID-19 crisis and grow up to be healthy, thriving adults, then now is the time to increase our investment in the programs that provide the stability that our children need.
Failing to increase funding for children now is robbing from our future
Increasing our investments in children is crucial because their experiences now will affect their futures. Children who live in poverty, lack proper nutrition, or do not have access to mental health care have worse educational, physical, emotional, and financial outcomes later in life. Even before COVID-19 struck, Oklahoma’s children were in a precarious position and the pandemic has only made issues worse. Providing support through investments in public services will both benefit their futures and positively impact our state budget as well. Ensuring healthy early childhood development for our children has a particularly large payoff, as every dollar spent towards early childhood development will generate an estimated four to twelve dollars for our economy. The research is clear: if we fail to invest in our children in the present, we are choosing to shortchange their future and ours.
Increased funding would help address the stark racial disparities facing our children
The damage caused by inadequate funding disproportionately falls upon our children of color. Even before the pandemic, Oklahoma’s Black, American Indian, and Latinx children experienced Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) at higher rates and were more likely to live in poverty and in extreme poverty. COVID-19 has only exacerbated these inequalities. Many Oklahoma families of color have endured higher rates of financial hardship than white households, according to KIDS COUNT analysis of Census Pulse survey data from fall 2020. Pre-existing structural inequalities have rendered households of color, particularly Black and Native households, especially vulnerable to the COVID-19 crisis. If the legislature is committed to providing equality of opportunity to Oklahoma’s children, it must ensure robust funding to reduce these unacceptable inequalities.
There are many steps Oklahoma can take to create a better future for our children
We have many opportunities to ensure our children have equitable and prosperous futures. One of the first things the Legislature should do is to heed State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister’s call to fund the School Counselor Corps. Providing public schools the requested $18 million to fund this initiative would help alleviate the mental toll the pandemic has taken on children. It also would make significant strides towards bringing Oklahoma’s average student-to-counselor ratio down from our current ratio of 421:1 to the recommended ratio of 250:1. Other useful investments that the Oklahoma Legislature could pursue are:
- Implement a Paid Family & Medical Leave program, which would provide parents and caregivers with resources that encourage healthy development during a pivotal period in children’s lives (and it would benefit small businesses, too).
- Raise teacher pay to improve student performance and reverse Oklahoma’s teacher retention problem.
- Provide security to children in low-income households by raising the state Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and restoring its refundability.
Oklahoma’s families require bold solutions from the Legislature to address the crises borne by our children. In the face of the unprecedented challenges brought by COVID-19, investment is more crucial than ever to ensure that Oklahoma is a Top 10 State for our children.
Investing in our children should not mean burdening Oklahoma’s low- and middle-income families
To fund these necessary programs, Oklahoma’s Legislature should look for ways to increase revenue that would not further strain our poor and middle-class families. Our state pours billions of dollars into tax credits and deductions that primarily benefit wealthy Oklahomans and multinational corporations while failing to boost our economy. A few examples of tax credits overdue for reform are:
- Tax breaks for Oklahoma seniors. While these may be popular, they are poorly targeted to the seniors who most need assistance and cost our state an estimated $310 million annually.
- The Investment/New Jobs Tax Credit. Costing our state $25 million annually, this type of tax credit has been shown to have limited efficacy, especially when the credit is permanent.
Reforming and cutting back spending on these ineffective policies would free up dollars for evidence-based approaches, like investments in childhood development. Pursuing revenue-increasing solutions rather than falling into the same flawed patterns of budget cuts is critical for ensuring that all Oklahomans will weather the COVID-19 crisis. Failing to increase our state’s investment in our children in proportion to the challenges facing them would hurt our children in the present and promise our state a sluggish economic recovery in the future.
About the Author
Josie Phillips is a policy intern for OK Policy. She graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a double major in Economics and International & Area Studies. She is an alumna of OK Policy’s Summer Policy Institute.