IT should surprise no one that in a new state-by-state look at health issues, the bad news outweighs the good news for Oklahoma. Among the United Health Foundation's troubling findings were these:
An estimated 857,000 adult Oklahoma residents are obese. The state's obesity rate ranks 45th among states.
The percentage of Oklahoma children in poverty is the fifth-worst in the country, jumping from 21.4 percent to 27.4 percent over the last decade. Poverty is defined as $23,550 in household income for a family of four.
Oklahoma has one of the nation's worst drug-related death rates, a rate triple that of the best-rated state.
Only one other state, West Virginia, has a worse child immunization rate than Oklahoma.
Even though Oklahoma saw some improvement in cardiovascular deaths and smoking rates, it's difficult to get past what the overall poor statistics mean for Oklahoma's children and the state's future health and prosperity. One example is a statistic the report describes as disparity in health status, which calculates whether residents report themselves to be in good health and compares the answer based on the level of education.
In Oklahoma, about half of adults 25 and older said they have very good or excellent health. Fewer than 20 percent of Oklahomans in the same age group without a high school diploma rated their health very good or excellent. That's no accident.
The links among poverty, health and education are well established; solutions are complicated. The Associated Press last week detailed a phenomenon called the “new rich, made up largely of older professionals, working married couples and more educated singles.” Not all stay at high-earning levels, but many are able to pass on their economic success with all of its attached advantages to their children.
One view, and a convincing one, is that personal choices and economic earnings go hand-in-hand. Married couples (particularly those who delay having children until marriage) often have the advantage of financial stability. The same is true of singles who hold a college degree. Simple personal initiative is certainly part of the solution for those struggling in Oklahoma and elsewhere.
That's easier than it sounds, though, for many of those mired in generational poverty who make decisions for immediate survival even when they have detrimental long-term consequences. A compounding factor is a culture of low expectations inflicted on far too many Oklahomans for far too long.
It's difficult enough for those in poverty with a high degree of personal initiative to move themselves and their families up the economic ladder. This becomes a near impossible feat if schools and families and communities believe it impossible. In many of Oklahoma's rural communities and inner-city neighborhoods, a high school diploma is seen as being quite good enough. Research about the importance of postsecondary education or job training often can't compete in the face of a family with immediate bills to pay and no family history to help establish the value of education.
While social programs to support those in poverty trying to work their way out provide vital support, the truth is that improved and higher levels of education are an inoculation of sorts against many of the ills associated with poverty and poor health. Educational attainment can help break the cycle of poverty that has a death grip on many families.
We know too well what these poor health statistics and their connectedness to poverty and education looks like in Oklahoma, with our overflowing prisons, a social services system overburdened in many cases with those suffering from alcohol and drug addictions, and schools trying to educate and pick up the pieces.
There are no easy solutions. All Oklahomans need to help people whose lives are more than a set of statistics.