New paper series from OK Policy sheds light on Oklahomans left behind by economic recovery

The State of Work in Oklahoma, a new paper series from OK Policy, sheds light on those Oklahomans who have been left behind by the economic recovery. The first paper, which explores the difficulty many Oklahomans encounter finding work, is now available.

You’ve probably heard a lot of people saying recently that Oklahoma’s economy is strong again and that’s partially true. There are reasons to be optimistic about our economy. State revenues are up, thanks in part to the Legislature’s efforts last year to address our structural budget deficit, and unemployment is below 4 percent again. These are signs of progress, but they don’t tell the complete story of Oklahoma’s economy. Too many Oklahomans are still struggling despite statewide progress. Some parts of Oklahoma and groups of Oklahomans still have high unemployment rates, the percentage of our adult population participating in the workforce is decreasing, and job creation in Oklahoma hasn’t kept pace with our population growth. 

Especially important to note is that, despite low statewide unemployment, some parts of Oklahoma are still seeing comparatively high unemployment. Nineteen counties, primarily in rural southeastern Oklahoma, still have unemployment above the state average. These high unemployment counties also have lower educational attainment and higher poverty rates than the state as a whole, which makes finding a good job much more challenging in these places.

In addition to these places that are struggling, there are also certain populations that face higher barriers to employment. Job seekers of color still face racial discrimination in hiring, the justice involved are passed over for many jobs because they have a criminal record, and low-income individuals with a poor credit history are often denied employment because of the false assumption that good credit is an indicator of trustworthiness or professional character. 

Looking beyond unemployment, Oklahoma’s labor force participation rate, like the national rate, is declining and has been for nearly two decades. A smaller percentage of our population is working or looking for work, and this could be problematic. It’s likely that about half of this decline is due to the natural cycle of older workers retiring. 

However, over 40 percent of adult Oklahomans not in the labor force in 2018 were neither retired or college-aged, according to 2018 Current Population Survey data. These individuals are out of the labor force for various reasons – they may be disabled, have a chronic illness, struggle with substance abuse, or have taken on caregiving responsibilities. Good public policies like paid family leave, affordable health care, and more education and training opportunities could have prevented some of these individuals from leaving the workforce, and we must work to make these policies a reality. 

When they do re-enter the labor force we need to make sure there are jobs available for them, and Oklahoma has some ground to make up here. Oklahoma has a jobs deficit – we have not created enough new jobs to replace all those lost during the Great Recession and keep up with population growth. We’ve created over 97,000 jobs in the state since December 2007, but we still need 82,900 more to keep pace with our population growth. 

In short, we’re not all doin’ fine. Too many Oklahomans are still struggling with joblessness. Low statewide unemployment doesn’t mean that jobs are easy to come by for all Oklahomans, and we must look beyond our statewide unemployment rate to see these struggling Oklahomans.

Future papers in this series will examine how well we value workers in Oklahoma by paying them a fair wage and offering necessary benefits like paid leave time, and how well the safety net is working to keep struggling families afloat and lift them out of poverty.


Courtney Cullison worked for OK Policy from 2017 to 2020 as a policy analyst focused on issues of economic opportunity and financial security. Before coming to OK Policy, Courtney worked in higher education, holding faculty positions at the University of Texas at Tyler and at Connors State College in eastern Oklahoma. A native Oklahoman, she received an Honors B.A. in Political Science from Oklahoma State University, and an M.A. and Ph.D. with emphasis in congressional politics and public policy from the University of Oklahoma. While at OU, Courtney was a fellow at the Carl Albert Congressional Research and Studies Center. As a professor she taught classes in American politics, public policy, and research methods and conducted original research with a focus on the relationship between representatives and the constituents they serve.

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