Tulsa Illustrates America's Complexity

05/01/2017 09:06 am ET Updated May 01, 2017

The national media has often analyzed Tulsa as a microcosm of the worst and best of America’s challenges and problem-solving. It is the place where the Midwest meets the South and the Southwest. And Tulsa has been a leader in public, private and nonprofit collaboration.

The New York Times’ portrait by Cassidy McDonald of philanthropist George Kaiser describes why and how “Kaiser has turned Tulsa into ‘beta city’, U.S.A., a testing ground for evidence-based social programs that aim to overhaul the way America handles issues related to inequality.”

A Times op-ed by David Kirp recently praised the Tulsa Union Public School System’s early education and full-service community schools. The same day, however, the Times’ Nick Kristof reported on Tulsans who would still vote for Donald Trump even though he is trying to kill the government programs that saved their lives. The national response to the persons Kristof portrayed was so bitter that he wrote a follow-up commentary, “My Most Unpopular Idea: Be Nice to Trump Voters.”

Last week, Tulsa continued to get great national publicity for its team efforts to advance equity. National Public Radio’s Eric Westervelt “has been keeping an eye on one innovative two-gen program… It's called CareerAdvance and is run by the Community Action Project of Tulsa County (CAP Tulsa).”

CareerAdvance offers career ladders to parents whose kids attend high-quality Head Start centers. It “pairs early childhood education for children with career pathway training in the health care sector for parents.” The collaborative program combines wraparound and educational services for children with financial incentives for parents’ educational progress.

Tulsa’s program has impacts in terms of job certification that “are much larger than anything you see in most other similar career pathway programs.” A study of the program, “What are the Effects of Pairing Head Start Services for Children with Career Pathway Training for Parents?,” found that 49% of its parents were employed in the healthcare sector at the end of the year; that is more than 50% greater than the results of a matched comparison group. Just as important, it also improves children’s Head Start attendance and reduces chronic absenteeism in school.

Given the extreme structural budgetary deficit which is clobbering Oklahoma, the key short-term questions will focus more on costs than outcomes. Fortunately, a less expensive version of the CareerAdvance model is also being studied.

Two authors of the CareerAdvance evaluation, Chris King and Eckrich Sommer, went into detail in explaining the costs and benefits to NPR. First, its cornerstone is high-quality early education and “we know that the return on investment for early childhood is … [between] 7 [and] 13-to-1.”

The all-important costs of initial investments are made manageable through local partnerships. They work closely with a local community college, and a “large majority” of the population at many community colleges are young parents. By prompting partners to rethink their ways of doing business, the teamwork allows them to share the costs for training those parents and for providing supports for their kids.

In addition to considering the benefits that programs like CareerAdvance offer to poor families, business leaders should think of the value of such efforts to the overall economy. NPR has also reported on the program here and here.

On the other hand, an author of the CareerAdvance study, Amanda Sheffield Morris, and Jennifer Hays-Grudo, have also contributed to the understanding of why Oklahoma is tied for first in the nation for young people who have survived multiple traumas known as Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs).

When competing in the global market, no city wants the publicity that accompanied “The Association Between Income and Life Expectancy in the United States, 2001-2014” in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). The lead author, Raj Chetty, called for “targeted efforts to improve health among low-income populations in cities, such as Las Vegas, Nevada; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.”

Like my Oklahoma City, Tulsa was cited as one of the nation’s cities where life expectancy for under-educated middle-aged whites has dropped at an astounding rate. The New York Times reports that in parts of America, “adults with the lowest incomes die on average as young as people in much poorer nations like Rwanda, and their life spans are getting shorter.” Chetty told the Times, “You don’t want to just think about why things are going badly for the poor in America. You want to think specifically about why they’re going poorly in Tulsa and Detroit.”

Tulsa, however, has made real progress in tackling its worse public health crisis. Life expectancy in the predominantly black North Tulsa was 14 years less than South Tulsa. Tulsa’s community medicine effort quickly reduced that gap by three years.

Part of the dilemma is that Oklahomans celebrate our individuality and our personal generosity to children, but often recoil at collective action that includes government participation to help their parents. We tend to ignore the lesson explained by NPR’s Westervelt, “To Help Kids, Help Their Parents.” Despite its contributions to the successes that NPR documents, the state is likely to impose severe budgetary cuts on Tulsa Community College, career tech, and public schools, as well as the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa, which conducted much of research that guided their successful collaboration. The Tulsa World says the budget, “sets [the] state on the path of ignorance and poverty.”

Whether we are talking about Tulsa, the state of Oklahoma, the American “opioid belt” where “deaths from despair” are exploding, or our entire nation in an era of Trumpism, we must keep both sets of realities in mind. We must face up to our history, and recent trends, that have ravished so much of our country. Neither can we discount our ability to overcome great obstacles.

Tulsa is one illustration of the duality we must acknowledge. Let’s not forget that we have committed even greater sins (like the 1921 Tulsa Race “Riot,” or the mass murder of Native Americans next door to Tulsa in Osage County, which is now being recalled in the New York Times Bestseller, Killers of the Flower Moon.) We have also overcome worse adversity than we face today. And, back then, we didn’t have the same opportunities to draw upon the wisdom of NPR, the New York Times, and great university researchers.

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