Report notes improvement in lives of Oklahoma kids

Wednesday, June 11th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

The lives of Oklahoma children improved over the past decade, even though they remained more likely than most to lack health insurance and live in impoverished neighborhoods, a study released Wednesday shows.

Teenagers, in particular, fared better in 2000 than their counterparts in 1990, the 2003 Kids Count report found.

Rates of teen births, dropouts and deaths from accidents, homicides and suicides all declined in the 1990s, the study showed.

The 15 percent decline in motherhood among 15- to 17-year-olds lagged behind improvement nationally but was encouraging to agencies trying to prevent teen pregnancies.

Community efforts to reach teenagers and their parents, along with programs encouraging youth to delay sexual activity, have helped, said Marilyn Lanphier, the state Health Department's coordinator of adolescent health programs.

``Previously,'' she said, ``there was a lot of denial it didn't happen here.''

The report, based on census data, also gave child advocates in Oklahoma cause for concern.

While making improvement in the 1990s, Oklahoma climbed only two notches among states to 35th overall in 10 indicators of child well-being. And the state saw setbacks in two of those _ infant birth weights and the percent of single parents.

The 2000 data also does not consider the economic downturn that has cost jobs and cut programs, said Anne Roberts, executive director of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy.

``Our unemployment is higher now than any time in the recent past. Even though it reports we have gotten better with poverty rates, I'm fearing we're heading the other way now,'' said Roberts, whose group receives funds from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, the private research and grant-making concern that issued the report.

For example, Kids Count shows 16 percent of Oklahoma children lacked health insurance in 2000 compared with 12 percent nationwide.

But ``right now we're looking at 20 percent,'' Roberts said. ``A lot of the reason for this is that parents have lost their jobs.''

Thirty percent of Oklahoma children in 2000 lived in neighborhoods with high poverty rates, something 23 percent of children nationwide experienced. And the state's children were twice as likely as others nationwide to lack a telephone at home.

``Think about how isolating that is,'' Roberts said. ``When you're poor and you have a choice of putting food on the table or paying the phone bill, you're going to put food on the table.''

The decade saw an 8 percent decline in Oklahoma's infant mortality rates but a 14 percent increase in babies born at low birth weights, the study showed. Low birth weights increase the chance of developmental problems as children grow.

More Oklahoma children were living with a single parent than in 1990 but that 26 percent was slightly lower than the national average.

A 25 percent reduction in high school dropout rates and a one-third drop in the number of teens not attending school and not working tells Roberts that children are better connected to their communities.

Alternative education programs have helped many students stay in school and off the streets, she said.