This article was co-authored by Gabriela Ramirez-Perez, OK Policy’s Immigration Policy Analyst, and Sabine Brown, OK Policy’s Infrastructure and Access Senior Policy Analyst.
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Data from the Census Bureau’s 2022 American Community Survey released Sep. 14 show that Oklahoma’s poverty rate was 15.7 percent, which was the nation’s 8th highest. The national poverty rate in 2022 was 11.5 percent, and Oklahoma’s ranking among states remained unchanged compared to 2021.
The data show that poverty is especially concentrated for Oklahoma’s children with 19.5 percent, or almost 1 in 5 children, living at or below the federal poverty level. For a family of three, this means the child lived in a household that earned around $23,000 or less in 2022. While Oklahoma was one of 11 states that saw a decrease in child poverty, Oklahoma had the nation’s 8th highest rate of children living in poverty during 2022. Oklahoma children continue to live in poverty at rates well above the national and overall state averages. However, due to systemic and historic racism, not all Oklahomans are struggling equally; Black, Hispanic, and Native Oklahomans experiencing poverty at disproportionately higher rates. One place where Oklahoma has seen improvement is health insurance uninsured rates, which continue to decline thanks to Medicaid expansion and pandemic-relief coverage.
While the latest Census data highlight the significant financial needs for Oklahomans, state lawmakers have a number of policy solutions available to reverse the state’s poverty trajectory, including: fiscally responsible relief to low-income Oklahomans through targeted tax credits; a fairer tax system; a livable minimum wage; access to child care, paid family leave, affordable housing, and other necessities for working families; and protecting recent health coverage gains.
Not all Oklahomans bear the brunt of poverty equally
While Oklahoma’s poverty rate is concerning enough, a closer look at Oklahoma’s poverty rates reveal that not all Oklahomans are bearing the brunt of poverty equally. Black Oklahomans experienced a poverty rate of 1 in 4 (25.3 percent), and Latino Oklahomans reported a poverty rate of 21.3 percent (more than 1 in 5), which is a decrease from 23.4 percent in 2021. The poverty rate for American Indians/Alaska Natives increased from 18.1 percent in 2021 to 20.4 percent in 2022. More than 1 in 6 (18.8 percent) of Oklahomans of two or more races lived in poverty.
While the rate of white Oklahomans who lived in poverty increased by two-tenths of a percentage point to 12.8 percent (or about 1 in 8) in 2022, it is clear that communities of color are over-represented in our poverty rates. We can see this higher concentration of poverty when considering that each of the communities with the highest rates of poverty only make up between 6 and 12 percent of the state’s population.
These inequalities are unsurprising. Historical and systemic racism have broken treaties and stolen land from Native Americans, used redlining and other housing policies to create concentrated areas of poverty, locked individuals out of access to higher education, and disproportionately imprisoned members of marginalized communities. The echoes of the past also are felt in the current day as the economic turmoil from the COVID-19 pandemic hit families of color harder.
Census data also show that women are substantially more likely to live in poverty than men, with the rates being 17.1 percent and 14.2 percent, respectively. Similarly, disabled Oklahomans are also more likely to experience higher rates of poverty. In 2022, a little over 1 in 5 (21.8 percent) disabled Oklahomans were experiencing poverty.
Health insurance data show gains, but thousands may lose coverage as pandemic coverage unwinds
Health insurance data paint a more promising picture with Oklahoma’s uninsured rate dropping from 13.8 percent in 2021 to 11.7 percent in 2022. Oklahoma had one of the highest increases in public coverage in the nation. Medicaid expansion, which took effect during the summer of 2021, continues to increase access to affordable, comprehensive health insurance for Oklahomans. Pandemic-related Medicaid protections – the requirement that states maintain Medicaid enrollment for almost everyone throughout the pandemic – also contributed substantially to Oklahoma’s lower uninsured rate. Additionally, enhanced tax credits to afford health coverage, and expanded enrollment and outreach efforts helped Oklahomans obtain and keep health coverage. Beginning in April 2023, the pandemic-related protection of continuous coverage ended. To help keep the state from losing ground for health insurance coverage, policymakers must work to ensure eligible Oklahomans do not unnecessarily lose health insurance coverage.
In December 2022, Congress passed an omnibus appropriation bill with several health provisions. First, the bill added one year of continuous eligibility for children who are insured by Medicaid and will be effective January 1, 2024. Continuous eligibility ensures that enrollees maintain health insurance for a full 12-month period, regardless of income fluctuations or missed administrative requirements. Additionally, the bill added a permanent state option to extend postpartum Medicaid coverage from 60 days to 12 months. Oklahoma adopted this option in March 2023, along with an increase of the income limit to qualify for pregnancy Medicaid coverage. Now that the option is permanently available, Oklahoma can continue offering this extended coverage indefinitely, rather than ending it in 2027, as had previously been the case. Both of these provisions will help with the state’s uninsured rate, but without action thousands of Oklahomans will lose coverage as the pandemic coverage unwinds. State policymakers should help ensure that Oklahomans can access quality health care by eliminating immigration-related barriers to Medicaid and expanding children’s Medicaid eligibility.
Oklahoma can improve economic security for families
The Census data make it clear that Oklahomans are facing disproportionally high poverty levels, but the state has been slow to pass legislation that can provide relief to everyday Oklahomans. In response to the stark differences in poverty between Oklahomans of different races and walks of life, the state could expand access to tax credits, avoid tax cuts that will make our tax code more regressive and disproportionality benefit the wealthiest Oklahomans, and pass significant reform around court fines and fees. Oklahoma can also pass common sense economic policies like raising the minimum wage, increasing access to child care, and passing a paid family medical leave program.
We have seen the positive impact that these kinds of policies can have. As part of the American Rescue Plan (ARPA), the federal Child Tax Credit (CTC) was temporarily increased from $2,000 per qualifying child to $3,600. Additionally, the credit was made available in monthly installments instead of the typical single payment during tax season. This credit allowed Oklahoma families to pay for essentials like food and rent. Overall, the expanded CTC cut child poverty in half across the country to record lows. However, after the expansion of the credit expired, child poverty rates across the country increased to pre-pandemic levels, demonstrating that addressing poverty can’t be done with one-time measures. While Oklahoma’s child poverty numbers didn’t increase, it should be alarming that almost 1 in 5 Oklahoma children live in poverty. This is unacceptably high and should motivate us to push for continued investments in families and children.
In Oklahoma, lawmakers have consistently refused to pass these sorts of policies that can help regular Oklahomans in favor of cutting taxes for the wealthy and diverting our tax dollars to people who don’t need help. Lawmakers have also prevented local municipalities from raising the minimum wage and even rolled back voter-approved reforms on criminal justice. If Oklahoma wants to provide real relief to everyday Oklahomans and address our stark poverty rates, lawmakers will need to pass people-centered legislation in the coming sessions.
Our state ranks among the worst states for poverty, but it doesn’t have to be this way
The newly released Census data reveal that Oklahoma has the nation’s eighth highest poverty rate, showing that the state’s current efforts to reduce poverty have failed to have a significant impact. However, Oklahoma’s dropping uninsured rate shows that progress is possible when the state makes data-driven investments. Medicaid expansion in Oklahoma and the extended pandemic coverage made a significant difference in our uninsured rate, and key provisions Congress passed in the omnibus bill will also help. Without further action, however, thousands of Oklahomans are in danger of losing health insurance as pandemic coverage unwinds. Passing legislation including tax credits like the CTC and raising wages for our workers can improve the lives and well-being of low-income Oklahoma families.
As we see the state’s poverty numbers continue relatively unchanged, the choice to invest in the lives of everyday Oklahomans needs to be made. The data show that we can reduce the number of Oklahomans and their families who live in poverty when federal and state officials make deliberate, targeted investments for low-income folks. With so many Oklahomans in need, it is time is choose bold, poverty reducing measures.