Oklahoma ranks among the bottom 10 states in the nation for child well-being, according to a new annual report released last week.
The state rose three places from the previous year’s rankings, from 45th to 42nd, according to the new Kids Count report, which is produced by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and evaluates states in four categories: economic well-being, education, health, and family and community.
In those four categories, Oklahoma ranked highest — 33rd — in economic well-being, the same spot it landed in for the 2020 report. The state ranked 41st in family and community, down one spot from the previous year; 45th in education, which is up three spots from 2020; and 42nd in health, an increase of seven spots from last year’s report.
Some key findings from the report include:
- 1 in 5 Oklahoma children — 186,000 — were living in households with an income below the poverty line. Compared to the state average of 20%, an even higher proportion of Black and Latino children live in poverty — 38% and 27%, respectively — compared to 14% of non-Hispanic white children.
- About 86,000 children, roughly 9%, in Oklahoma don’t have health insurance.
- 95,000 Oklahoma children live in high-poverty areas.
- And many Oklahoma children are falling behind in school: 71% of fourth-graders aren’t proficient in reading, and 74% of eighth graders aren’t proficient in math.
Where Oklahoma stands
The report shows some improvements in Oklahoma’s child well-being measures, said Gabrielle Jacobi, child well-being analyst at the Oklahoma Policy Institute. But other states are improving too, at faster rates.
“Our improvements just aren’t enough to compete,” she said. “So our rankings are continuing to decline, and we’re continuing to be in the bottom 10 for child well-being.”
The well-being of the state’s children is crucial, because today’s underserved eighth graders will be legal adults in just five years, Jacobi said.
“We’re expecting them to be workforce members, parents, volunteers, community leaders,” she said. “If we truly want a better future for all of us, we need to start focusing on policies and budget priorities that can ensure a better outcome for children now so that they can reach their full potential.”
Jacobi said Oklahoma could do that by expanding paid family and medical leave, raising the minimum wage and expanding the earned income tax credit and the child tax credit.
“These are evidence-based anti-poverty solutions that we know work and provide families more money that they can spend on rent, on utilities, transportation, groceries, medical care, all those other necessities,” she said. “By providing that little extra support, it can stabilize households, it can reduce stress and ultimately trigger reductions in child poverty.”
State schools Superintendent Joy Hofmeister said while she was proud to see improvements over the years in academic performance categories, the larger view shows “the real struggles and setbacks where the world outside the classroom impacts progress inside classrooms.”
“Oklahoma has made important educational investments but cannot be satisfied until we are regionally competitive with those investments at a minimum,” she said in a statement. “Imagine what we could do with that kind of sustained support of students and their education.”
Joyce Marshall, director of maternal and child health service at the state Health Department, pointed to areas of improvements shown in the report, including the state’s teen birth rates, which have declined from 50 per 1,000 births to 27 per 1,000 births in nearly a decade.
“This is another area in Oklahoma where multiple agencies, programs and professionals partner to increase access to health services, evidence-based sexual health education and medically accurate information to reduce risks and promote positive youth development,” Marshall said in a statement.
There was also a reduction in the percentage of low birth-weight babies, from 8.4% in 2010 to 8.2% in 2019.
But there is room for improvement in all measures, Marshall said.
“8.2% of low birth-weight infants is 8.2% too many infants,” Marshall said, adding that the same goes for other health measures, including rates of uninsured children, child death rates and childhood obesity rates.
The rankings are based on 2019 data, so they don’t capture the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.
That means, “unfortunately, some of our indicators might look even worse next year, particularly for economic well-being,” said Jacobi, of the Oklahoma Policy Institute. The nonprofit is Oklahoma’s host agency for the report, which means it helps provide the data used in the rankings.
One area where future reports may show improvement, however, is the state’s number of uninsured children. Since voters opted to expand the state’s Medicaid program to low-income adults last year, allowing people eligible under the new guidelines to have coverage as soon as July 1, it’s likely that more children will end up with health coverage, too, Jacobi said.
“As previously uninsured adults start enrolling for health care via expansion, they’ll be more likely to enroll their own children in state health care programs such as Medicaid, or CHIP,” she said.