State leaders often say the answer to housing instability is a job – but jobs don’t help if they don’t pay enough. Wages have risen at less than half the rate of rent for the last two decades, putting working Oklahomans at risk of housing instability and homelessness. In Oklahoma, 2 out of 5 wage earners do not make enough to afford a two-bedroom rental working a single, full-time job. Workers should be able to afford basic necessities like housing; policymakers can help make this happen by increasing the minimum wage, incentivizing jobs that pay a livable wage, and supporting affordable housing development.
We depend on workers; they should be able to afford housing
Oklahomans working full-time jobs shouldn’t be struggling to afford housing, but many do. The hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom rental in Oklahoma is $18/hour. Workers providing vital services make less – in some cases much less – than that wage. Examples include entry-level teachers ($17.60/hour) and emergency medical technicians ($14.88/hour); single parents working in either job can’t afford a home with separate bedrooms for themselves and their child. Some essential workers, like child care workers ($11.67/hour), are not paid enough to afford a one-bedroom rental ($14.32/hour). These jobs are vitally important for Oklahomans, yet don’t pay enough to afford a modest rental home.
Housing costs have out-paced wages
Housing costs have risen considerably while wages have stagnated in the past two decades. Since 2001, housing costs have risen by 9 percent while wages have only grown by 3 percent.
A person working a minimum wage job at $7.25 per hour now has to work 79 hours per week to afford a modest one-bedroom rental home at fair market rent and 99 hours per week for a two-bedroom rental. These kinds of hours are virtually impossible for most people and unsustainable for everyone. High inflation means other life necessities like groceries and transportation costs are also more expensive, which stretch budgets even further. Without better alignment between wages and jobs, we will continue to see housing instability and high eviction rates.
Oklahoma’s top employers often do not pay their workers enough to afford housing
The top three retail employers in the state – Walmart, Amazon, and Hobby Lobby – all pay less than the hourly wage needed to afford a two-bedroom rental. Walmart employs the second most number of residents in the state and Oklahoma had the third-most Walmart sales associates per capita in the country in 2020. Walmart’s minimum wage is $14/hour, less than the wage needed to afford a one-bedroom rental. Amazon and Hobby Lobby are the third and fifth top employers in the state, respectively. The average hourly wage for Amazon fulfillment centers ranges from $15 to $17/hour. The Hobby Lobby average wage is $13/hour. Combined, these three retailers employ approximately 60,000 Oklahomans, many of whom can not afford a modest rental home working full-time.
1 in 10 Oklahoma workers is employed by one of the state’s top 10 employers
|Department Of Defense (U.S. military & civilian employees)*
|Wal-Mart Associates Inc. (Includes Sam’s, Ochelata & Pauls Valley distribution)
|Amazon (Fulfillment, Web/Data Services & Whole Foods)
|Integris Health, Inc.
|Hobby Lobby Store Inc
|Saint Francis Hospital Inc (Includes Vinita, South, & Muskogee)
|Oklahoma State University
|OU Medicine/ OU Medical Center
|U.S. Postal Service
|Department of Veterans Affairs/ U.S. Veterans Administration
|Source: Oklahoma Department of Commerce, Oklahoma Top Ten Employers by Number of Employees, 2023
Three of Oklahoma’s top 10 employers are health care organizations. Health care employees – particularly vital health care support occupations – often do not make enough to afford a two-bedroom, or in some cases, even a one-bedroom rental. This includes physical therapist aides ($11.36/hour), nursing assistants ($14.52/hour), medical assistants ($16.70/hour), and phlebotomists ($16.87/hour). As the nation faces a health care worker shortage in the face of an aging Baby Boomer generation, Oklahoma needs more health care professionals. It is difficult to recruit these employees with wages that do not cover basic life needs.
Three of the state’s top 10 employers – Department of Defense, U.S. Postal Service, and Department of Veterans Affairs – are federal agencies, which have taken some steps to raise wages. The minimum wage for federal civilian employees was set at $15/hour in 2022. While $15/hour is still not enough to afford a two-bedroom rental in Oklahoma, it is a move in the right direction. State legislators can follow suit by increasing the state’s minimum wage and making sure Oklahoma workers can meet the needs of their families. In 2021, the Department of Defense and Department of Veterans Affairs were among the federal agencies employing the vast number of people making below $15/hour; Oklahoma had 1,260 federal employees making under $15/hour in January 2021. (While this minimum wage will not apply to the U.S. Postal Service – the third highest federal employer in the state – the starting salary for an entry-level City Carrier Assistant for the U.S. Postal Service is $18.92/hour.)
Oklahomans need better wages and more affordable housing options
Oklahoma leaders can address the state’s housing crisis directly by encouraging the development of affordable housing through tax credits, direct investments in proven programs, and zoning law changes that encourage multi-family housing. The issue of affordable housing, however, is complex and interwoven with a number of other issues. Central to this will be addressing Oklahoma’s overall economic well-being.
Oklahoma doesn’t just need to create new jobs; we need better-paying jobs, along with skills training to fill those positions. The state’s top employers and common occupations frequently do not pay enough to afford housing. Lawmakers need to adequately fund the workforce development that can encourage residents to upgrade their skills for in-demand jobs.
Currently, 1 in 3 Oklahomans makes less than a living wage. Lawmakers can raise the minimum wage — and allow local governments the ability to determine a minimum wage for themselves — to help ensure more Oklahomans earn enough to put food on the table or a roof over their heads. Unless Oklahoma elected officials and policymakers take action, too many Oklahoma workers will remain at risk of housing instability, eviction, and homelessness.