Oklahoma was one of two states with the greatest gains in overall child well-being, moving from 40th place to 36th in the 2013 Kids Count Data Book, an annual study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The rate of teen pregnancies fell to 50 births per 1,000 in 2010, from 54 in 2005. The number of child and teen deaths also shrunk, and the percentage of children covered by health insurance increased.
The number of children attending preschool rose. Proficiency in math and reading went up — although a majority of students in both categories still were not deemed proficient — and more high school students graduated on time. Nationally, however, the Sooner State’s ranking for education slipped from 39th to 40th.
Doug Gibson, interim executive director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy, a partner in the study, said it’s good to take note of areas that improved, but that at least one major hurdle remains for state youth.
“The growth of children living in poverty has really compounded and exacerbated the problems for children overall,” he said.
Twenty-three percent of Oklahoma kids live in poverty; the number hasn’t budged in several years. The percentage of children in high poverty areas more than doubled, from 5 percent in 2005 to 12 percent in this latest report, and more children are living with parents who don’t have secure employment.
Those categories almost mirror national averages. But for a state that weathered the Great Recession so well that it was labeled “recession-proof” by Forbes, simply matching the national averages for childhood poverty seems unusual.
One possible explanation is in the quality of the jobs.
“Even though the unemployment rate compared to other states has been lower [in Oklahoma], the jobs we have do not pay very well,” Gibson said.
Much of the progress Oklahoma made in the report can be related to state programs aimed at early intervention, he said. The public pre-K system, along with child-care tax credits and a statewide initiative to improve early childhood education, has given impoverished families access to higher-quality developmental resources than they had in the past.
“Even though we’ve made progress, there’s still much to be done,” Gibson said.
As long as childhood poverty is high, overcoming it will take extra effort because it sits at the foundation of problems with education, health, family and lifestyle.
“We’re still in the middle of the pack,” he said. “Well, we’re a little below the middle of the pack. We’ve got to continue the programs we started and even extend them.”