Oklahomans are an aspirational people. We believe in the power of hard work to transform our lives and transform our communities. We have stories we tell ourselves to support that idea: pioneers who founded Oklahoma City in a day, energy industry leaders who rose from poverty to become immensely successful, and athletes who inspired millions. This is the Oklahoma many of us know and love and are proud to call home.
 

Sadly, it is an unfamiliar place for some of our residents, especially for children of color, many of whom are growing up in poverty with very little opportunity to escape it. Those stories, in other words, may ring true for you, but hollow for many Oklahoma kids.

 

Great communities can overcome great obstacles — and I believe Oklahoma is great — but first we need to recognize some hard truths. That starts with understanding that a significant portion of our minority and immigrant families face challenges that would be rightly defined as “crises” if they were affecting our majority white population on the same scale.

 

For instance, 63 percent of white children come from families that earn more than 200 percent of the poverty level. However, just 37 percent of African-American children, 36 percent of American Indian children and 33 percent of Hispanic children are in families with that level of earnings. Simply put, most children of color are growing up poor.

 

The solution to that income gap is supposed to be public education. However, Oklahoma’s cash-starved schools are struggling to help any of our children perform at grade level, much less children from disadvantaged backgrounds. For instance, while 37 percent of white children score “proficient” or above in fourth grade reading, less than half as many African-American children do. High school graduation rates show similar racial disparities. The sad truth is that we have failed to support an educational system that is capable of leveling the playing field for Oklahomans born into poverty.

 

These findings are culled from a report titled “
Race for Results: Building a Path for Opportunity for All Children,” released this month by the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national partner of the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy. The data demonstrate just how wide the opportunity gap is between different races. Yet the report also reveals a bright spot for Oklahoma in the outlook for children of immigrant families. While they face many of the same additional obstacles that effect other minority children, they are successfully closing the career and education gap later in life.  In fact, 88 percent of the children of foreign-born families are working or in school as young adults aged 19-26, compared to just 81 percent of children in U.S.-born families.
 

A great deal of the credit for that success can be assigned to the stability of immigrant families, as children in foreign-born families are significantly more likely to grow up in two-parent households than children in U.S.-born families. Unfortunately, that progress could all be undermined if the federal government decides that deporting undocumented children and parents is more important than ensuring they have a path to citizenship in a reasonable time and, just as importantly, a path to becoming educated, productive adults that are actively contributing to our economy.

 

So, where do we go from here? Let’s start by acknowledging that we have a problem. Like the rest of the country, too many of our children’s futures are determined by skin color and zip code.

 

Next, let’s be honest about how we got here. Our schools are wildly underfunded, with many moving to four-day weeks. Our health care services, especially in rural areas, are crumbling. Our criminal justice system is too quick to break up families and send moms and dads to jail for non-violent crimes, many related to substance abuse. And despite our commitment to community and compassion, we have at times embraced policies and politicians who are openly hostile to immigrants.

 

All of these are fixable problems, if our voters demand that they be fixed.

 
View Oklahoma’s Race for Results report at www.aecf.org/raceforresults/ and join OICA in advocating for policies that benefit all of Oklahoma’s children.
 

By OICA CEO Joe Dorman

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