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A national report on childhood well-being does not paint a favorable portrait of Oklahoma


Nicole Hill July 29th, 2010

In fact, Oklahoma comes in 40th or worse in five of the 10 categories: infant mortality rate, child death rate, teen death rate, teen birth rate and percent of children in poverty.

Oklahoma ranks 44th in the nation in child well-being, according to a report.

Since 1990, The Annie E. Casey Foundation has released its annual "Kids Count Data Book," which tracks 10 measures of childhood well-being, and the newest results aren't rosy for the Sooner State.

In fact, Oklahoma comes in 40th or worse in five of the 10 categories: infant mortality rate, child death rate, teen death rate, teen birth rate and percent of children in poverty.

Taken from 2007 and 2008, the data is gathered from state agencies, like the Department of Human Services and the Office of Accountability. Oklahoma's showing can be attributed to a lack of planning and prevention, said Shauna George, director of the Oklahoma Kids Count at the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.

Of particular interest is the 21 percent increase in the percent of Oklahoma children living in poverty from 2000 to 2008. According to 2008 OICA data, 62 of the state's 77 counties " including Oklahoma County " had a childhood poverty rate of more than 18.2 percent. On the bright side, Logan, Cleveland and Canadian Counties all fell below this mark, with Canadian boasting the lowest percentage in the state, with 11.3 percent of children in poverty.

It's important to remember these numbers stem from data collected two years prior, so the state's slide can't be attributed simply to a struggling economy.

"These numbers that you're looking at are pre-recession," said Linda Terrell, executive director of the OICA. "I believe that we will probably continue to drop lower."     

Undoubtedly, the current economic recession has had an effect on child well-being nationwide, but the full scope of that impact will be determined in coming years, said Laura Beavers, national Kids Count coordinator at The Annie E. Casey Foundation, in a statement.  

But some of the recession's ramifications on children and families can be seen already.  

Cuts to children's health services and mental health services have already begun because of the state's budget shortfalls. These cuts, coupled with Oklahoma's high rates of parental incarceration, will only keep the state in the bottom of the rankings, Terrell said.

"What else can you expect? I just don't anticipate that we're going to get better until we decide to protect our children," she said.

These cuts may negatively affect the child death rate, up 16 percent since 2000; teen death rate, up 8 percent since 2000; and percent of low birth-weight babies, up 9 percent from 2000.

But the foundation's report does have one speck of good news: The state now has fewer teenagers not enrolled in school or without a high school education. In 2000, 14 percent of Oklahoma teens ages 16-19 were high school dropouts or not enrolled in school. By 2008, however, that number had fallen sharply to 8 percent, a drop that matches the national trend.

As to what can be taken from the report and other states' results, Terrell said it's all about investment. Successful states have funded children and family services at levels that make them effective.

"We have programs that we know work in this state for children and for families," she said. "But we fund them at such low levels that they are unable to produce the amount of change that we need to happen."

And the need for change is great, she said. These Kids Count findings are just the latest in a history of poor ratings for the state's children.

"We have been (at the bottom) for a long time," George said. "We do have and have had a high rate for poverty."

For now, Oklahoma's poor showing indicates a perilous situation for children and families. Should the state continue doing business this way, it will be disastrous for the economy and the future of Oklahoma, Terrell said.

"Long-term, we're talking about children that are less likely to grow up with what they need to be successful in their lives, their careers (and) in school," she said. "(This) means less tax dollars for us, less involved, engaged citizenry for our state and less children who are going to grow up and be high-quality parents so that we can stop this cycle."

For Terrell, hope lies in the people of Oklahoma, whom she believes genuinely care about the health and well-being of the state's children.

"If the fact that we don't want this bright, creative, enthusiastic little 2-year-old to grow up with adequate brain development and support to reach the potential she has " if that's not enough, then let's focus on economics, too," she said. --Nicole Hill

View the "2010 Kids Count Data Book."
 
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