Earlier this year, the Foundation for Child Development and Annie E. Casey Foundation released a series of reports on the child well-being index (CWI) for states. Study authors note that national information for child well-being does not help us understand how children are doing, since there is so much state variation and since states have responsibility for so many of the programs that support children and their families.
As is often the case with ranking documents, the news is not good for Oklahoma. In this very broad measure of how children fare (including 25 separate measures), Oklahoma children rank 43rd, with an index value of -0.56. New Jersey children are best off, with an index of 0.85, and New Mexico’s are worst off, with an index of -0.96. Perhaps most disturbing of all, we were in the bottom 10 states on five of the seven “domains” that were measured. Oklahoma’s domain rankings were:
- 43rd in family economic well-being,
- 41st in health well-being,
- 47th in safe/risky behavior (levels of crime and use of tobacco, alcohol, and drugs),
- 38th in educational attainment,
- 44th in community engagement (working, school engagement, and voting among young adults),
- 49th in social relationships (percentage of children who have moved recently), and
- 11th in emotional/spiritual well-being (suicide rate and religious attachment).
In contrast to many ranking efforts, this one also gives us some clear ideas on what we could do to improve our outcomes. Extensive analysis of state CWI values and state actions to help children revealed several very strong relationships. Here are the items that make the most difference in child well-being, from the most to the least important:
- decreasing the percentage of uninsured adults,
- increasing the percentage of adults with a high school diploma,
- increasing the percentage of adults working,
- increasing per capita income,
- increasing household net worth,
- increasing state and local taxes,
- increasing state education spending per pupil,
- increasing the maximum family income for a child to be eligible for Medicaid (SoonerCare), and
- increase spending per child using Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF).
Each of these items is highly correlated with child well-being. Among other things, these clear relationships suggest that we cannot improve the lives of children if we do not improve the lives of adults. They also suggests that many aspects of child well-being are within our power to change. We could improve five of these ten factors (fewer uninsured adults, higher taxes, more spending on education, offering SoonerCare to more low-income children, and increasing TANF benefits) tomorrow, if we had the will and commitment to our children. We also can make wise investments to improve the other five factors in a reasonably short period of time.
Recent actions and debates, however, bring our will into question. For example, our elected leaders are actively fighting the federal effort to increase the percentage of adults with health insurance. Governor Fallin’s budget recommends no new funding for education, which is ten percent lower than it was in 2009 in spite of adding 22,000 pupils since then. Finally, legislative and executive leaders seem quite attached to cutting state taxes, which are already low in comparison to prior years and in comparison to other states. If one or more of these efforts are successful, we should not be surprised it the next child well-being results for Oklahoma are even more alarming.