Five reasons poverty persists in Oklahoma

Oklahoma children 1936, Dorothea Lange

Poverty has been a part of Oklahoma’s landscape since before statehood.  Early settlers faced enormous odds – drought, food insecurity, and nonexistent infrastructure – and possessed few material resources.  During the Great Depression, the state lost nearly half a million residents to out-migration induced by devastating poverty and famine.

Today, one in six Oklahomans (or 16.9 percent) live in poverty and nearly a third of the state’s counties have a poverty rate of 20 percent or more. Even amidst rising tides of economic prosperity, poverty continues, from one generation to the next.

The reasons are varied and complex, but stem from the material effects of poverty’s central feature – difficulty meeting basic human needs.  Here are five aspects of Oklahoma’s social, economic, and political landscape that explain poverty’s persistence.

1. Underemployment & low wage work

Employment is a prerequisite to escaping poverty.  While the statewide unemployment rate is quite low, it’s an imperfect measure of actual joblessness because of wide disparities by county and by race/ethnicity.  People in eastern Oklahoma and people of color are unemployed at much higher rates. Oklahomans are also underpaid and underemployed.  Nearly one in three jobs are in occupations where the median pay is below poverty level, and these jobs comprise an ever-increasing share of the labor market.  The state ranks 5th nationally for the share of adult workers that are not fully employed (11.4 percent).

2. Low educational attainment

Education and poverty are intertwined because educational attainment is highly correlated with employment and earnings.  Our public school system is chronically underfunded and its physical infrastructure is badly neglected.  We rank 49th for per pupil spending on common education.  In 67 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, 2/3rds or more of adults have not completed two years of education after high school.

3. Mass incarceration

Incarceration takes a lifelong toll on an individual’s earning capacity.  Oklahoma leads the nation for the rate at which we incarcerate non-violent drug offenders and women.  There are significant barriers to stable employment and financial stability for felons and ex-offenders.  The state denies them certification for certain occupations and requires regular payments (fees, court costs, restitution, etc.) that they can ill-afford.  Between 1999 and 2004, Oklahoma quadrupled the share of ex-offenders that it imprisoned for technical violations of their release, rather than for committing a new crime.

4. Hunger & poor health

Oklahoma leads the nation in severe food insecurity, with 7.5 percent of households going hungry at some point during the year because they can’t afford food.  Oklahomans are also nearly the unhealthiest people in America, ranking 48th overall in health outcomes, with exceptionally high rates of smoking, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness. Over 600,000 residents are uninsured, roughly 18 percent of the population.

Malnutrition, poor health, or untreated illness stunt a worker’s capacity to earn and drains their assets.  Unhealthy people are more likely to miss work, lose their job, accumulate debt, and be left to shoulder alone the ongoing and expensive burden of caring for themselves and their loved ones.

5. Inequality

Women and people of color in Oklahoma are more likely to face economic disadvantage.  They’ve been repeatedly disenfranchised and targeted with violence (both public and private).  African-Americans and Native Americans have been unemployed at nearly twice the rate of Whites since WWII.  People of color are arrestedprosecuted, and imprisoned at alarmingly high rates.

Violence against women is pandemic.  More women living in Oklahoma have been raped, stalked, or abused by a partner than in any other state.  It’s the only state in America where the life expectancy for women declined during the past decade and we have the lowest percentage of female state legislators in the country.

There is a silver lining.  In some ways, Oklahoma is actually well positioned to alleviate poverty.  Oklahomans are some of the most charitable people in the country; the state ranks 8th nationally in per capita charitable giving.  Additionally, with a natural resource base abundant in oil and natural gas, the state has and will continue to have access to a growing revenue base.  Poverty does not persist in Oklahoma because we’re not prosperous.  It persists because we’re not leveraging those public and private resources to achieve prosperity that can be widely shared.



13 thoughts on “Five reasons poverty persists in Oklahoma

  1. Good assessment. The historic context of OK poverty is in itself causal factor… a large populations with a high probability of being poor. The union busting that a historic fact in this state. Racism. Land grabs dating from early in the history of the state through the modern era- social and economic disenfranchisement. The independent and interactive effects of all of these. And the social and political will to address the causes is itself an issue in OK.

  2. It is important when talking about poverty to also talk about cause and effect. It’s important not to get the two confused. They cannot be separated, but they’re not the same.

    High incarceration rates have root causes, like poor opportunities available,participation in illegal activity, etc. This is not a cause, it’s an effect. You can’t blame the effect.

    You have to fix the cause.

  3. Katherine makes a good point. However, one finds in the literature an arguement that incarceration of certain segments of the population is indeed a causal factor to poverty. Michell Alexander, “The New Jim Crow: Mass Inccareration in the Age of Colorblindness”, essential argues that current practices of incarcreation has an independent causal effect on poverty in the US- with 5% of world population with 25% of the world’s prisoners and African American incarcerated at nearly 5.6 times the rate of whites there are some questions that need to be asked. Higher propensity for crime may indeed be linked dependly on poverty- as noted in Katernine comment. However, incarceration -and differential enforcement- is also an independ player in creating poverty issues- restricting job opportunities of those incarcerated once thay are released, removal of wage earners from families, as well as all the family and community disenfranchisement issues related to incarceration. This is one of the points made by Alexander and others on understanding the role of incarceration and poverty. Like so many factors in understanding social phenomena, the problem of “causes causing causes” or recursive versus nonrecursive explanations can not be ignored. One has to take into account that a effect can be a cause of the original effect. You can and should “blame” the effect (treat it as a cause) and test that hypothesis. It takes a thorough look at things to really address a complex issue.. but it’s too often politically expedient to do so. And sometimes a thorough look gives answers politicians, policy makers, and the public do not like.

  4. The reason there is so much poverty in Oklahoma is that over 60% of all births in the state are paid for by the tax payer or medicaid. those that are having children are undereducated and have no desire to improve just like their parents. There is too much help for those that refuse to help themselves. They refuse to accept the fact that education is important and the parents themselves do not think education is important. When you fix that things will change.

  5. It’s true Bill – 60 percent of births are covered by the state’s Medicaid program. But why you think these families don’t have a desire to improve themselves or are uneducated?

    The costs of having a baby, safely and with medical supervision, have skyrocketed. More and more parents are uninsured because they can’t afford it – I’m talking here about people who work full-time year-round, but their wages are low. Should only the wealthy be allowed to start a family?

  6. Why would anyone want a family if they cannot take care of themselves? I have been around a long time and have spent many,many hours trying to help individuals that said they wanted to help themselves, but too many will not make the effort to get educated or really sacrifice to help themselves when it has been easier to take funding from other sources. And too many have told me face to face that they got by without an education so why should their children go to school if they did not want to. Sure, some need all the help they can get and they deserve it , brcause they try and many make a good life eith a little help. But the 90% that don’t care never will do anything to improve themselves and the sd thing is that they do not care. When parents care about education , so will the kids. But when the parents don’t care notheing that anyone does will not change the situation.My opinion and so far I have seen nothing to change my mind.

  7. Parents need to be parents and not buddies with their children. It is difficult and leads to many hardships but being a real caring parent is necessary if the population of this state raises their income level.

  8. The temptation to “blame” the victim is strong. Why don’t people just do something to improve their lots? Why don’t they get some education or training? Why don’t they make better choices for themselves and children? The answer is that they can’t because poverty is like an illness!

    Research has uncovered a troubling aspect of the psychology of poverty. The stress of poverty and the overwhelming task of making difficult decisions on a daily basis over a prolonged period fundamentally changes brain chemistry and erodes one’s ability to make rational choices.

    Once we treat poverty as a disease much the same as other addictions) then we will realize that food, health and housing security are essential for achieving a “cure”. I don’t know how long the cure takes, but the science suggests there’s little hope that the poor will be able to cure themselves.

  9. According to Bill: “The reason there is so much poverty in Oklahoma is that over 60% of all births in the state are paid for by the tax payer or medicaid. those that are having children are undereducated and have no desire to improve just like their parents.”

    To this I would say: Bill is absolutely correct in saying that those having children, who are oftentimes children themselves, are dredfully under-educated SPECIFICALLY in the area of sex education! And that’s because the churches have such a strangledhold on the state’s lawmakers, that they have successfully blocked the subject of sex education being taught in the schools, and it’s quite obvious that the kids aren’t getting this education at home (and certainly not in church!)

    Add to that, the unrelenting efforts on the part of the radical religious Right Wing to try and block such things as emergency contraception (the morning after pill),abortion, or even access to REGULAR contraception, and then you’ll have a much more accurate picture of the reason for so many un-intended and unwanted pregnancies!
    If the state is going to be complicit in preventing it’s young people from being educated on matters of sex and human reproduction, and anything else that would help reduce the numbers of unintended pregasncies, then it follows that the birth rate in that state, is going to be higher than that of other states. And if the state, itself is the proximate cause of the higher birth rate, then the state has no one but itself to blame for having to bear the cost of so many unintended births!

    Bill goes on to say that: “There is too much help for those that refuse to help themselves!”

    Bill why don’t you explain for us how, exactly, all those living below the poverty level are refusing to help themselves, and are getting too much help?

    The fact of the matter Bill, is that this country–and it’s bought and paidf for elected offficials of BOTH parties–are far more concerned with “taking care of” the wealthy and the rich corprations, than they are with caring for the poor, the elderly, the veterans, the disabled, the children, and the poor, because the wealthy and the rich corprations are the ones who keep them in office! How do you think political contributions from the former group stack up against the contributions of the later group?
    We have hundreds of thousands of HOMELESS veterans and entire families,the elderly and little kids are going hungry! And we can’t do anything to help THEM–but our tax dollars are still being handed over to to obscenely rich corporations that are recording record profits in the form of tax subsidies! Can you really see nothing wrong with this picture? And who was it who said: “There are none so blind, as those who will not see?” Jesus Christ, maybe?

  10. So, are you suggesting that we place a limit on contributions? say $1,000 per contributor per year (total contribution local and federal?) Ad, that only citizens able to vote can make contributions (eliminating the corporate contributor and foreign contributions through corporations?) I like it!!!

  11. The problem is that our state promotes having babies and the tax payer pays for it with money working people are charged for their retirement.While an elderly that gets sick prior to the age of 62 can get no help whatsoever.The disabled or poor who have problems like child visitation violation by the other parent has to get an order to make the other parent obey the court order.This is nonsense and cost money that could go to the child.Legal aid?A joke. Doesn’t exist.They wont help family law issues or criminal law issues.What does that leave? The people that won’t work get help with family planning while the people who have worked all their lives can’t get any help. The attorneys charge whatever they like with no repercussions. Bar assoc.? Ran by Lawyers. If you wan’t to complain,good luck. There’s nobody to complain to. If you complain about legal aid, your directed to who? Legal aid.If you complain about dhs. To who? Dhs. Get the picture? Nobody can stand up for what is right because of the system in place. Can’t get medical help? Insurance is 500 to 600 a month.If you disable,good luck finding a Dr to say so. So how do you get medicaid or medicare? Dr’s will not see you without insurance. Free clinic? As long as your medication is 4 bucks at walmart. Then it’s a matter of can you cash a check there? Only if you have cashed 10 that week. Why? Because statewide,every store uses a check cashing company that doesn’t go by your balance,but buy how many checks you cashed that week. They actually don’t have access to your balance. Besides,their talking to you from some foreign country. Most likely-Syria. We might as well let the refugee’s in.They run our finances now. I have only skimmed the surface.

  12. Ginny is correct. The unusually high rate of religion in Oklahoma can be directly related to poverty. Religion makes people followers and we need leaders. The original article should have listed SIX reasons, not five!

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