New Census data shows the percentage of families living in poverty in Oklahoma increased in 2016, even as the national poverty rate declined to its lowest point since 2008. In 2016, almost one out of six Oklahomans (16.3 percent) were making less than the poverty line ($24,230 a year for a family of four) before taxes. About 9,500 more Oklahomans had incomes below the poverty line in 2016 than in 2015.
Oklahoma’s poverty rate increased even as the poverty rate for the United States as a whole fell to 14.0 percent. These national improvements widened the gap between Oklahoma and the U.S. as a whole. Oklahoma’s poverty rate in 2016 was 9th highest out of all 50 states.
The Census also released new Supplemental Poverty Measure data this week. This companion measure of poverty better shows the impact of safety net programs like SNAP (food stamps), state and federal Earned Income Tax Credits, and the Child Tax Credit, which aren’t incorporated into the official poverty rate. Together these programs kept millions of Americans, including thousands of Oklahomans, out of poverty in 2016. The Supplemental Poverty Measure also adjusts for cost-of-living differences between states and metro areas. Oklahoma showed a 3-year average poverty rate of 12.8 percent under this measure.
The Census data show continuing racial and ethnic disparities in poverty levels, both in Oklahoma and nationally. In Oklahoma, poverty rates ranged from 12.3 percent for non-Hispanic or Latino whites to as high as 29.0 percent for blacks or African-Americans. Poverty rates surpassed the national average in Oklahoma for all groups except American Indians (22.2 percent poverty rate in Oklahoma compared to 26.2 percent nationally) and people of two or more races. Continuing high poverty levels among people of color is a symptom of historical wealth-stripping, especially from black and American Indian communities, as well as an economy that continues to put up barriers to opportunity for many Americans of color.
Earlier this week, the U.S. Census also released new data on health insurance coverage in Oklahoma and the United States. In 2016, the uninsured rate stayed nearly flat in Oklahoma at 13.8 percent (compared to 13.9 percent in 2015). The estimated total number of uninsured Oklahomans went from 533,000 in 2015 to 530,000 in 2016. Oklahoma had the third highest uninsured rate in the nation, below only Texas (16.6 percent) and Alaska (14.0 percent). Nationally, the uninsured rate dropped to 8.6 percent — the lowest ever recorded.
Like the nation as a whole, Oklahoma has made progress in reducing the uninsured rate significantly as coverage expansions under the Affordable Care Act went into effect beginning in 2014. That progress continues nationwide but appears to have stalled in Oklahoma. In particular, states that accepted federal funds to expand Medicaid have taken a widening lead in health coverage over states like Oklahoma that continue to refuse those funds.
While the national progress on reducing poverty and increasing health coverage is encouraging, Oklahoma did not join in that progress in 2016. Of course, a major factor in that year was the downturn in the oil and gas industry that put the state economy into a recession. However, even during better economic years, the percentage of Oklahomans living in poverty and without health insurance significantly exceeded the national average. These latest numbers underscore the need for Oklahoma to do more to help people find good jobs and opportunities and afford basic necessities like decent housing, affordable health care, nutritious food, reliable child care, and transportation.