Census data show Oklahoma still lags nation in poverty rate

New Census data released today show Oklahoma’s poverty rate remained higher than the national average in 2019 but is slightly decreasing. More than one in seven Oklahomans (15.2 percent, or 583,029 people) were living below the federal poverty line, which is $26,200 for a family of four. Oklahoma’s 2019 poverty rate was lower than 2018’s rate of 15.6 percent but was higher than the national average of 12.3 percent. 

While this data points to changes between 2018 and 2019, it fails to document our current economic conditions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Through the spring and summer, the national poverty rate has climbed with the Urban Institute estimating that more than 1 in 10 Oklahomans currently live in poverty. As a result, this means too many of our friends and neighbors are struggling to provide for basic necessities like food, health care, and housing, leaving little or no money to save for emergencies or their long-term goals. These numbers show that too many Oklahomans are being left behind and are denied the opportunities and quality of life that they deserve.

The Census Bureau this week also released data on Oklahomans who lacked health insurance in 2019, which was 14.3 percent, significantly higher than the national uninsured rate of 9.2 percent. However, Oklahoma’s current health care uninsured rate likely is substantially higher than that due to pandemic-related job losses. Recent data from the Census’ Household Pulse Survey indicates that 27.3 percent of Oklahomans are now without health insurance.* Oklahomans without health insurance are less likely to be able to see a doctor or fill a prescription, and they are far less likely to weather severe illnesses or injuries. High medical costs can put families at a greater risk for poverty or force them to cut back on other necessary expenses. However, Oklahoma currently stands on the cusp of a significant change. With the recent passage of State Question 802, Oklahoma is scheduled to expand Medicaid in 2021, which should lower the number of Oklahomans who struggle to access necessary health care.

As with the economic data earlier, the new health care coverage data doesn’t reflect how many Oklahomans’ living situations have become even more precarious due to COVID-19. Low income and a lack of health insurance are not the only ways that Oklahomans are suffering, unfortunately. In August, approximately 1 in 8 Oklahoma adults reported sometimes or often not having enough food.* Additionally, more than 1 in 5 Oklahoma renters reported being behind on rent, and 1 in 12 Oklahomans in the labor force was unemployed in August. 

Now more than ever, low-income Oklahomans are facing a crisis where they are unable to pay their bills, put food on the table, and get back to work. There are, however, some steps that state and federal officials can take to help Oklahomans get the services they deserve: 

  • Oklahoma’s Congressional delegation must act swiftly to pass a robust second federal relief package. The first relief package, which extended and expanded unemployment benefits, protected eligibility for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) recipients and provided a $1,200 check to all adults. These benefits kept Oklahomans afloat during the beginning of the pandemic, and successfully kept an estimated 134,000 Oklahomans out of poverty. Many of the relief package’s provisions have since expired, leaving Oklahoma families without the support they need. A second stimulus package should maintain the increased unemployment benefits, guarantee food assistance, while also providing much-needed financial assistance to schools, state and local governments, and other key agencies. These measures are vital to provide Oklahomans the stability they need to weather the remainder of the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Oklahoma’s elected officials and policymakers should expand Medicaid quickly and without unnecessary barriers to coverage. Oklahoma currently seems unlikely to implement the voter-mandated Medicaid expansion until this summer, leaving hundreds of thousands of uninsured Oklahomans without health care and at significant financial risk. 
  • Gov. Stitt’s administration should ensure the federal eviction moratorium is properly enforced so that no one has to suffer from homelessness during the pandemic by enacting a simultaneous statewide eviction freeze. Additionally, our Congressional delegation should ensure the next pandemic relief package includes rent assistance to families temporarily struggling to afford housing.

Despite our state’s abundance of natural resources and a population with a remarkable work ethic, Oklahoma remains among the nation’s poorest states by many metrics. Too many of our friends and family members struggle to survive even during non-pandemic circumstances. It is time for our officials to put forward bold, meaningful measures that can make Oklahoma a top 10 state and deliver equitable opportunity to thrive for all Oklahomans.

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*This statistic uses the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey data and reflects the average response rate for survey weeks 11-13.

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About the Author

Josie Phillips published this blog post as a policy intern for OK Policy and transitioned into a Policy Fellowship with a focus on labor and the economy in August 2021. Read her full bio below.


Josie Phillips joined OK Policy in June 2020 as a policy intern and transitioned into a policy Fellowship with a focus on labor and the economy in August 2021. She served as a Policy Fellow until July 2022. She currently serves as State Priorities Partnership Fellow with the Maine Center on Economic Policy. Josie graduated from the University of Oklahoma in 2020 with a double major in Economics and International & Area Studies along with a minor in Spanish. While she has dabbled in working with various non profit organizations and a political campaign, her most treasured experience before entering the public policy field has been her time volunteering with the Women’s Resource Center, a rape crisis center and domestic violence shelter in Norman, Oklahoma.

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