In late June, Oklahoma received the bad news that the state now ranks 44th in the nation for measures related to overall child well-being, down from 36th the year before. The ranking comes as part of the 2018 KIDS COUNT Data Book, released by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in collaboration with the Oklahoma Policy Institute and OICA. The report shows Oklahoma lagging behind other states and desperately in need of a course correction when it comes to taking care of our kids.
This kind of dismal outcome needs to be a wake-up call to our policymakers, our voters and our parents. If one of our major universities had a football team that was failing to win at the same rate we are failing our children, it would be treated as a statewide embarrassment. We have got to have that same attitude about the health, safety and well-being of our children. The status quo is not working for Oklahoma kids.
Consider some of these jarring statistics.
• 46th in education: Fully 71 percent of Oklahoma fourth-graders are not proficient in reading, and 76 percent of Oklahoma eighth-graders are not proficient in math. Our rapidly advancing economy makes education more important than ever, but Oklahoma kids are backsliding and graduating from school unprepared for either the workforce or college (or worse, failing to complete high school).
• 44th in the strength of our families and communities: This category examines the percentage of children living in high-poverty areas, single-parent households and education levels among heads of households, as well as teen births. Oklahoma is below average nationally in these categories and has the second highest birth rate in the nation.
• 40th in health: This ranking looks at the percentage of children who lack insurance, child and teen death rates, low-birth-weight babies and alcohol or drug abuse among teens. While Oklahoma improved in several categories (and, to our credit, has very low rates of children abusing alcohol), its health indicators fall significantly below the national average and lag behind improvements being made in other states.
• 36th in economic well-being: This is Oklahoma’s highest-performing measure of child well-being and relates to data concerning poverty, family employment, housing costs and whether older teens not in school are working. The 2018 report showed a 2 percent decrease in the rate of children living in poverty and a 3 percent decrease in the rate of children whose parents lack secure employment. Still, we are significantly below the national average.
Not all the news in Oklahoma is bad for children. Despite these rankings, the state is taking some positive steps, including criminal justice reforms and investments in the state’s foster and adoptive care programs. Now we need to build on those gains for Oklahoma to truly be a place that children can thrive.
That starts with looking in the mirror and asking ourselves what our priorities are. As parents, are we doing everything we can do to provide a stable and loving environment for our children? As voters, are we asking enough of our elected officials? Are they moving the needle when it comes to making Oklahoma a better place to live for kids? And, for those Oklahomans who serve in elected positions, are we worried about campaign checks and votes, or serving the least among us?
How we answer those questions will go a long way in determining what the future looks like for Oklahoma’s kids.