Are Oklahoma’s children underprivileged? According to a recently published list by Wallethub, which attempted to rank states with the most underprivileged children, Oklahoma is the 7th worst. However, if the goal was to help states improve their policies, or to show parents what states to avoid, the authors might have done better to provide sources for their data (outside the lists Wallethub had already compiled), and more importantly, choose better metrics. The authors don’t provide much context or support for why their chosen metrics matter, or how they could be changed. Of course, the goal might just be clicks.
The study is divided into three sections: Socio-economic welfare (50 points), health (25 points), and education (25 points). Each is evaluated based on Wallethub’s list of arbitrary metrics and then assigned a weighted score. These are then combined to get the final overall “underprivileged” score. But are these scores worthwhile?
Share of Children Living in Extreme Poverty: Wallethub defines extreme poverty as having an income less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line. For an individual, that is about $32,000 a year. For a family of 3, it is approximately $54,000 per year. Does that sound like “extreme poverty?” The World Bank defines extreme poverty as living on $1.90 or less a day. Wallethub’s measure defines it as living on less than $87.40 a day for an individual or less than $148.77 for a family of 3. The calculus seems a bit off here. In addition, the list fails account for cost of living. $54,000 a year goes much further in rural Oklahoma than it does in Manhattan.
Economic mobility: This term is completely undefined. Wallethub fails to specify whether they’re measuring the economic mobility of the children, their parents or the entire family. They also do not mention how they measure economic mobility.
Children in Renter vs. Owner Households: This metric is under-explained and its inclusion is unjustified. Is the child of a military family, who moves every year and finds renting base housing more efficient than buying and selling, underprivileged? Is a child whose parents own a hovel privileged? Certainly home ownership has long been a way to pass wealth from one generation to the next, but a wealth of counterexamples cast doubt on the contention that children in renter households are de facto less privileged than those in owner households.
Coronavirus Infrastructure: This metric is given triple weight. This is a pointless measure to include, especially as those aged 0-17 are already at an incredibly low risk of contracting and dying from COVID. It is also a measure that is of temporary use, as pandemics don’t last forever. Any attempt to repeat the study would have to eliminate or replace this metric.
Share of Adolescents 9th to 12th Grade Who Felt Sad or Hopeless During the Past Year: This metric could just as easily be called “Number of High School Students in the State.” What is the government supposed to do about angsty teens? Even rich and privileged teens get sad or feel hopeless. Again, Wallethub fails to cite a source for their data or even specify how it was gathered. Nor do they explain why teens specifically are counted in this measure but those below high school age are not. Persistent feelings of sadness and hopelessness lasting more than 2 weeks can be a sign of depression. But the Wallethub study does not specify a period of time and has a separate measure for depression.
Share of Children Suffering from Depression: Is depression an ailment that only affects the underprivileged? Of course not. It afflicts people from a variety of backgrounds and financial situations. Furthermore, what policy could states implement to fight this? It's not the role of government to hand out antidepressants.
Young Children Not Enrolled in School: Wallethub defines young children as 3-4 years old, so this measure is solely about pre-K. Oklahoma already provides universal, voluntary pre-K education for 4 year olds. Studies indicate that pre-K may not provide any significant benefit to children. One study in particular found that by 3rd grade, participants in a pre-k program were actually behind their peers (who were eligible for the program but lost the lottery for entry). Inclusions of such faulty metrics casts doubts on Wallethub’s methods.
State Pre-K Funding per Preschool-Aged Resident: As stated above, Oklahoma already offers universal pre-K education. Again, Pre-K education is of limited benefit to children. Studies have shown that while it did provide an advantage in early childhood education, that advantage had largely faded by the time the children reached grade school. Even supporters of pre-K education acknowledge that it might not be the best use of scarce resources. In addition, success should be measured by outcomes rather than funding. Government programs should be evaluated based on measurable outcomes and financial efficiency, not the amount of taxpayer dollars poured into them.
Wallethub's entry into the public policy space is puzzling, to say the least. It would be one thing if they were merely using a catchy top-50 ranking to drive traffic to their website to sell ads and get affiliate click-throughs to new credit cards. But there appears to be a concerted effort to shape public policy. They polled no less than 15 experts, all with advanced degrees, asking a series of questions to each. Unfortunately, they failed to ask the right questions. If the idea is to push government to make better policy, the metrics must be both things government can (and should) control, and they should measure the results of the government policy, rather than the inputs. If Texas bragged that they spent 5 billion dollars digging a hole in the ground to educate their kids, Oklahomans would be justified in mocking them. Results do not care how hard you tried or how much money you spent. Results show how well you performed. Bad policy is bad policy no matter how much money you pour into it. Let’s make sure we continue ask how well our government has performed.
Spencer Cadavero is a Research Associate at 1889 institute and can be reached at email@example.com.
Tyler Williamson is a Research Associate at 1889 institute and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the authors, and do not necessarily reflect the official position of 1889 Institute.