Ginnie Graham: Oklahoma Needs Political Will to Get Child Well-Being Out of the Bottom 10

Ginnie Graham: Oklahoma Needs Political Will to Get Child Well-Being Out of the Bottom 10

In more than three decades, only once has Oklahoma cracked out of the bottom half of the nation in a state-by-state report on child well-being, and that was in 1992. It’s been a frustrating climb of two steps forward, three steps back. 

Many Oklahomans appear desensitized to these consistently poor outcomes, shrugging a shoulder as if it’s our fate. The opposite needs to happen; the rankings ought to inspire more changes in attitudes, activism and actions.

For 32 years, the Annie E. Casey Foundation has been releasing the Kids Count report examining key indicators of a child’s social, emotional and developmental health. Rankings are given within each category and overall, backed by data.

Earlier this month, Kids Count placed Oklahoma at No. 42, up from 45th, but still in the bottom 10 states in the nation. Oklahoma peaked at No. 24 in 1992, but advocates noted rising child poverty, teen births and violent deaths of teens. There was optimism then that a positive trend was emerging; the previous year ranked the state at No. 27, up from No. 35 in its inaugural report.

Those years cited the same troubling issues. One cautioned that one-third of women of child-bearing age had trouble getting health insurance, making future healthy births a concern. That predictor proved true as infant mortality and low birth-weight babies became more problematic. Those were among the leading factors in the downward rankings during the 2000s. That slow slide didn’t come without warning. Headlines through the decades never painted a rosy picture. Editorials always urged more action.

Though Oklahoma’s ranking was in the middle, the Tulsa World headline 30 years ago reflects an expectation to do better: “State Gets Bad Grade for Children’s Issues.” 

The newspaper headlined the first report “Oklahoma Rated Low In Children’s Welfare.” 

Those early reports deemed the 1980s a “terrible decade for children” in the U.S. They stated that Oklahoma’s child poverty jumped by nearly 30% during that decade.

1991 Tulsa World editorial called for expanded prenatal services for pregnant teens and early childhood education. “Such early intervention can, more than anything else, improve the quality of life for Oklahoma’s children in need, and reduce the need for costly remedial actions in the long run,” the editorial said. By the late 1990s, Kids Count reports added child abuse and neglect to Oklahoma’s growing problems.

1998 headline stated “Oklahoma ranks high in child deaths,” with reporter Leslie Wakulich opening the story, “Oklahoma can be a deadly place for a child.” Oklahoma ranked 33rd that year. The Tulsa World headline from 20 years ago stated “Kids Count paints dismal picture of youth in Oklahoma,” again pointing to abuse, neglect and teen violence. Oklahoma slid to No. 37. Investigations and confirmed child abuse and neglect cases had doubled from the mid-1980s. Those quoted spoke of spiking mental health and substance abuse needs among parents going unmet.

That was a precursor to record high child abuse and neglect deaths, confirmed cases and foster placements that followed a decade later. It led to a federal class-action lawsuit filed in 2008 and settled in 2012 to force the state into needed reforms of its foster-care system. It’s hard not to wonder how much pain and dysfunction — and lost state resources — could have been avoided if state leaders had paid more attention to the data and advocates.

By 2007, Oklahoma dipped to 42th and to 44th two years later. Ten years ago, the state was at 43rd. Through the decades, improvements have been made, such as universal 4-year-old programs in public schools starting in 1998. Philanthropists, led by the George Kaiser Family Foundation, invested in early childhood education programs and other interventions to generational poverty.

Declines in smoking began by the mid-90s, spurred by grants from the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust. Teen births finally lowered in the past decade with coordinated efforts between new and existing nonprofits serving teens with evidence-based curriculum. Health departments played key roles in these efforts, as well.

Attention on Oklahoma’s very high incarceration rates, including the world’s highest among women, prompted reforms through initiative petitions and legislation. It has made a dent in keeping families together, particularly in the metro areas. Still, the ranking has been stubborn. Oklahoma continues to trail other states in how it treats and serves its children.

So, what is the leading indicator? It’s something that has always been present. Poverty: It touches on every aspect of a family. Income is the deciding factor in whether a sick child goes to a doctor or mental health counselor. Parents weigh the cost of an after-school program against having a kid return to an empty home.

It determines the kinds of foods children eat, what type of transportation gets them to school, where they live and whether activities such as sports and band are possible. The tenor of a home changes when parents are facing eviction, hunger, unemployment and uncertainty.

The recent Kids Count report found that one in five Oklahoma children (186,000) in 2019 lived in homes with incomes below the federal poverty line and that a little more than half of those live in high-poverty neighborhoods. One in 10 didn’t have health insurance. The report’s data is prepandemic. Expect next year’s findings to show more desperate numbers. In 2000, former editorial writer Janet Pearson encouraged leaders to pay attention to the Kids Count reports.

“Fortunately, solutions are not entirely out of reach, as our limited success indicates. Early childhood programs and guaranteed educational opportunities for all, as well as expanded health care and medical outreach activities, can do much to lift Oklahoma out of the despair of poverty. If — and it’s a big, big if — the political will is there to do it.”

Ten years ago, an editorial stated that lowering child poverty would cascade benefits to other areas: “Most other states, including some that aren’t rolling in dough, seem to have figured out a better way to ensure child well-being. Let’s find out their secret.”

There are only so many ways to say the same thing. Solutions are there, but priorities and politics must shift. Oklahomans can do better if we have leaders who are willing to forge the way.

Ginnie Graham