Latest poverty, health insurance data show that Oklahoma still has work to do

New data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey released Sept. 15 show that Oklahoma’s poverty rate (15.6 percent) was the nation’s 8th highest, increasing slightly in 2021 when compared to 2019’s pre-pandemic levels (15.2 percent).  A closer look at the data reveals significant differences in poverty rates when comparing the categories of race, gender, and disability status. It also shows that more than 1 in 5 Oklahoma children live in poverty. A notable turning point in this year’s data begins to show the effects of Medicaid expansion, which came into effect midway through 2021, on lowering the rate of Oklahomans without health insurance. To deliver fiscally responsible relief to low-income Oklahomans and help lower the state’s poverty rate, lawmakers should commit to increasing the number of and reach of targeted tax credits; building a fairer tax system; raising the minimum wage, increasing access to child care, paid family leave, affordable housing, and other necessities for working families; and protecting and expanding recent health coverage gains. 

Too many Oklahomans, including children and families, still live in poverty

In 2021, nearly 1 in 6 Oklahomans lived in poverty, but it was concentrated in children and families. In 2021, 1 in 5 (20.9 percent) Oklahoma children, and 1 in 10 (11.5%) Oklahoma families, lived at or below the federal poverty level. For a family of three, this means that they earned $21,960 or less in 2021. Oklahoma had the eighth-highest overall poverty rate in 2021 out of all 50 states, Washington, DC, and Puerto Rico. 

Policymakers have tools to level the playing field 

While poverty is widespread in Oklahoma, this data show that not all Oklahomans are struggling equally. While nearly 1 in 6 Oklahomans overall lived in poverty in 2021, just 1 in 8 white Oklahomans did — a rate nearly half that of Black Oklahomans (26.2 percent) and Hispanic Oklahomans (23.4 percent). The poverty rates for Native Americans (18.1 percent) and Oklahomans reporting two or more races (18.9 percent) also were higher than the state average. 

This is 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 COVID-19 pandemic and resultant economic turmoil hit families of color harder. Lawmakers can help level the playing field — and deliver targeted relief — by expanding access to targeted tax credits that put money back in the pockets of Oklahomans who need it. They can also ensure that any other changes to the state tax code do not further burden Oklahomans who are least able to pay and maintain adequate state revenue for shared public services, such as schools, mental health care, and Medicaid.   

However, poverty disparities aren’t limited to race; women are substantially more likely to live in poverty than men in Oklahoma: 16.9 percent of women, compared to 14.3 percent of men. Although unequal pay for equal work and lower pay in jobs worked by women are likely a factor, this disparity also shows how Oklahoma women are economically penalized for having children. State policymakers have a number of opportunities to address gendered poverty, including raising the minimum wage, passing a paid family and medical leave program, increasing access to child care (and the child care subsidy), and protecting Oklahoma families who rent their homes during this housing crisis.

The data also shows that Oklahomans with disabilities are substantially more likely to live in poverty: 1 in 5 disabled Oklahomans were impoverished in 2021. Disability often prevents individuals from fully participating in the workforce, but the effects are compounded by federal policy that disallows disabled people receiving Social Security Income from being able to save money and penalizes them for getting married. Congress could go a long way toward remedying this by passing the SSI Savings Penalty Elimination Act, which would raise the asset limit caps and allow people with disabilities some measure of financial security. 

Health insurance data shows promising gains 

Medicaid expansion, which increased access to affordable, comprehensive health insurance for Oklahoma adults age 18-64, took effect during the summer of 2021. The new Census data for 2021 health insurance coverage show the first six months of expansion’s impacts, with Oklahoma’s uninsured rate dropping from 14.3 percent in 2019 to 13.8 percent in 2021. OK Policy has previously estimated that the state’s uninsured rate is closer to 10 percent as of midyear 2022. The 2022 Census data, to be released next year, should show a clearer picture as it will be the state’s first full year with expansion coverage. 

Oklahoma’s Medicaid expansion has been an unqualified success, and Oklahoma is the only state where a voter-passed Medicaid expansion was implemented fully and on-schedule. Oklahoma further made headlines recently when a state task force unanimously voted to advance recommendations to expand pregnancy and postpartum coverage for Oklahomans. Going forward, Oklahoma can build on this success by closely monitoring managed care implementation to ensure it does not erect unnecessary obstacles to health care access, as well as taking advantage of a federal option to make it easier for children to remain covered by Medicaid. 

Oklahoma has the opportunity to do more 

By and large, this year’s American Community Survey from the Census Bureau data show that state efforts to reduce poverty have largely stagnated in Oklahoma. However, Oklahoma’s falling uninsured rate also shows that progress can be made when lawmakers implement bold, targeted policies. These efforts can improve the lives and well-being of low-income Oklahoma families to ensure more of our friends and neighbors can lead healthier lives, live in safe communities, and have the opportunity to raise thriving families. 

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From Shiloh Kantz, OK Policy’s Interim Executive Director: 

“The new Census data show what Oklahoma households know to be true: too many of us don’t have what we need to get by, let alone thrive. Facing the fact that Oklahoma has the nation’s 8th highest poverty rate should empower Oklahoma lawmakers to reduce the number of Oklahomans who live in poverty, especially our children. Now is the time to take bold action to ensure that every Oklahoman can have healthier lives, live in safe communities, and raise thriving families. We can get closer to this vision of a better Oklahoma believe that Oklahoma — through targeted tax reform for low-income Oklahomans, increased worker supports, such as a higher minimum wage and access to child care, and building on Oklahoma’s recent success with expanding health care coverage.”

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NOTE: The American Community Survey publishes state-level data on a wide range of indicators every year. The COVID-19 pandemic severely limited 2020 data collection efforts. Data from that year is widely considered unreliable, therefore it has been omitted from this analysis. Data on Oklahomans who


Carly Putnam joined OK Policy in 2013. As Policy Director, she supervises policy research and strategy. She previously worked as an OK Policy intern, and she was OK Policy's health care policy analyst through July 2020. She graduated from the University of Tulsa in 2013. As a student, she was a participant in the National Education for Women (N.E.W.) Leadership Institute and interned with Planned Parenthood. Carly is a graduate of the Oklahoma Center for Nonprofits Nonprofit Management Certification; the Oklahoma Developmental Disabilities Council’s Partners in Policymaking; The Mine, a social entrepreneurship fellowship in Tulsa; and Leadership Tulsa Class 62. She currently serves on the boards of Restore Hope Ministries and The Arc of Oklahoma. In her free time, she enjoys reading, cooking, and doing battle with her hundred year-old house.

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