Oklahoma’s leadership has consistently called for the state to achieve Top 10 status. The rhetoric, however, often lacks a yardstick about how we measure our state’s success.
During today’s State of the State address, Gov. Stitt provided his vision for how Oklahoma can move forward. But what has been lacking from the public dialogue are the metrics as to how we really determine if we are moving towards Top 10 status.
What does a Top 10 state even look like? Through the work of our Together Oklahoma program, OK Policy has surveyed Oklahomans from across the state to find out what really matters to them. In no uncertain terms, our neighbors have told us they have strong concerns about criminal justice, health care, education, economic security, and equitable taxation.
With that in mind, we would like to suggest a few ways that the state can make progress on the issues that impact Oklahomans the most. We’re calling it “The Top 10 ways Oklahoma can become a Top 10 state (and how you measure it).”
- A fairer tax system. Oklahoma’s tax system is unevenly weighted, with low- and middle-income Oklahomans paying a greater share of their income in taxes than the national average. In fact, the Institute for Tax and Economic Policy (ITEP) ranked Oklahoma’s tax system as the 9th most unfair when comparing state and local taxes as a share of income. Middle income earners in Oklahoma pay about 10.7 percent of their family income to taxes, while those in the very lowest income bracket pay about 13.2 percent. Those in the upper income bracket pay only 6.2 to 8.6 percent of their family income on combined taxes. Oklahoma elected officials and policymakers can and should do more to ensure that all residents are paying fair and equitable taxes.
- Ensuring more Oklahomans have access to health care. If you’re looking for a statistic where Oklahoma ranks in the Top 10, look no further than our uninsured rate for working-age residents. This is not a good thing. Oklahoma’s uninsured rate ranks 2nd nationally with 1 in 5 adults aged 19-64 without health coverage. Far too many Oklahomans find themselves in the position to decide between seeing a doctor or being able to pay this month’s rent. To improve our health care coverage rate to Top 10 status, our working-age uninsured rate would need to be 8 percent or lower, putting us in line with Kentucky and Michigan. To reach this would mean expanding health care coverage for an additional 178,000 Oklahomans.
- Improve health coverage for Oklahoma children. We also know that about 8 percent of Oklahoma children (age 0-18) don’t have health insurance. By this measurement, Oklahoma is tied for 44th with several other states and surpassed only by Texas. To be among the top 10 states for insuring children, we would need a child uninsured rate of 3 percent, alongside states like Alabama, Louisiana, and Iowa. This would mean getting an additional 19,000 Oklahoma children covered by health insurance. To improve Oklahoma’s health coverage rates into Top 10 status, Oklahoma’s elected officials should focus on straightforward Medicaid expansion. It’s the only tried and tested way of improving access to care. Any other option only wastes taxpayer dollars and endangers lives. Last fall, a record 313,000 Oklahomans signed the SQ 802 ballot petition so that voters can decide on how best to provide health care coverage for all Oklahomans. It’s time for voters to have their say at the ballot box.
- Lower the state’s incarceration rate. Depending on who and when you ask, Oklahoma ranks #1 or #2 for incarceration rates — not only in the United States, but in the world. Recent criminal justice reforms have helped reduce Oklahoma’s prison population, but the most recent data from the Prison Policy Initiative shows the state’s incarceration rate is still outsized when compared with other states and even countries. Oklahoma locked up 1,079 people for every 100,000 residents, according to the most recent comprehensive data available. We would have to cut that incarceration rate by about 35 percent to about 700 people per 100,000 just to reach the national average. To reach Top 10 status for incarceration rates, Oklahoma would have to reduce its prison population by nearly 60 percent. This would bring Oklahoma to the 10th lowest incarceration rate of 468 people per 100,000 residents. Addressing our outdated sentencing laws, which keep Oklahomans locked up for far longer sentences than the national average, would be a significant step in the right direction.
- Reduce the rate of female incarceration. Oklahoma also leads the nation for women behind bars, with 281 women incarcerated for every 100,000 residents. If Oklahoma cut that rate in half, it would still have a higher incarceration rate than the national average. To achieve a Top 10 status for female incarceration rates, Oklahoma would need to reduce its female incarceration rate by more than 70 percent.
- Address racial imbalances in our justice system. One out of every 15 Black men in Oklahoma is behind bars, which was the second highest rate in the country behind only Vermont. The national average is about half that, with one in every 26 black men behind bars. We would need to cut that ratio by more than half to reach Top 10 status. In Oklahoma prisons and jails, the Black incarceration rate (males and females) is about four times higher than the White incarceration rate. Oklahoma’s outsized incarceration rates clearly demonstrate the need for continued criminal justice reforms that adhere to national best practices. We also need to adequately fund our justice system so that it doesn’t rely on a complex web of fines and fees that often cannot be collected, which increases the likelihood that someone will be taken back to jail for failure to pay fines or fees. These financial punishments fall more heavily on Oklahomans of color, making it harder for them to disentangle themselves from the justice system. Our state leaders need to reshape our justice system so that a defendant’s access to equal justice would not depend on the size of their bank account or the color of their skin.
- Improve Oklahoma’s poverty rate. More Oklahomans live in poverty than nearly any other state. In 2018, 15 percent of Oklahoma households had income below the poverty threshold, which is $13,300 for a single person under 65 or $25,926 for a family of four that includes two children. Nationally, Oklahoma has the 43rd highest poverty rate. To enter the Top 10 rankings for low poverty levels, Oklahoma would need to decrease our poverty rate by about a third to get below Virginia’s poverty rate of 10.5 percent. One way to reduce poverty’s impact in Oklahoma would be restoring the refundability of the state’s Earned Income Tax Credit, which is essentially a tax cut for working Oklahomans. In a 2016 cost-cutting move, state lawmakers eliminated EITC refundability, a key component of the credit’s effectiveness. Prior to that change, workers could earn a refund if they had a larger EITC credit than the state income tax they owed. Oklahoma’s tax code provides multiple credits and deductions for high-income individuals and businesses, but just three tax credits designed to help the thousands of low- and moderate income families. EITC has a clear, documented history of encouraging work and reducing poverty. Its refundability is a key component to its effectiveness to lessen poverty’s impacts in our state. It’s time to bring its full effectiveness to bear for working Oklahomans.
- Reduce the percentage of Oklahomans with low-wage jobs. The state now boasts an unemployment rate that is near the lowest it has ever been. Do a little digging, however, and you’ll find Oklahoma has among the highest rate of low-wage jobs. About 28 percent of Oklahoma jobs pay less than the poverty threshold for a family of four, ranking our state 43rd nationally for low-paying jobs. If we cut the percentage of Oklahomans with low-paying jobs by more than half to about 12 percent, we would surpass New York and join the Top 10 states for residents with low-paying jobs. Because so many Oklahomans rely on low-wage jobs, the state needs to protect the interests of employees by moving forward with paid family and medical leave. Most Oklahomans do not currently have access to paid family and medical leave. In emergencies, most workers face the impossible choice of sacrificing income or not caring for themselves or a loved one who needs them. Nine states have already adopted statewide insurance programs to make paid family and medical leave available to all workers and the self-employed. These paid leave programs are similar to unemployment insurance and can be funded by a small payroll tax. Oklahoma could easily adopt this type of insurance system and make paid leave a reality for all working Oklahomans.
- Improve academic outcomes. The Nation’s Report Card (National Assessment of Education Progress) measures how well students are performing across the nation. On average, Oklahoma students score near the bottom in reading and math. Just one in four, or 26 percent, of Oklahoma 8th graders in 2019 scored proficient or higher in math and reading, which is significantly lower than the national average. To reach Top Ten status Oklahoma would have to improve this measure by at least 12 percentage points. Top Ten in education means that Oklahoma would be a state where upwards of 40 percent of 8th graders are proficient in math and reading. To make this happen Oklahoma needs reliable continued investment in our schools. Two years of funding increases have been the right steps forward after a 10-year period where Oklahoma led the nation in PK-12 funding cuts. We must continue to restore Pre-K through 12th grade state aid funding to reach the outcomes we hope for our students.
- Improve educational attainment. As employers look to expand or relocate their business or industry, a key consideration is access to a well-educated workforce. Oklahoma ranks 43rd in percent of the population with a bachelor’s degree or higher. About a quarter of Oklahomans (26 percent) have earned a bachelor’s or professional degree compared to nearly 40 percent in Top Ten states. Top 10 states have about 37 percent of their residents holding a bachelor’s degree. Maintaining a robust system of higher education is vital to Oklahoma’s economic prosperity. Insufficient funding hampers Oklahoma’s ability to increase college degree earners and cultivate the productive workforce that is needed to keep Oklahoma economically competitive. During the past decade, Oklahoma’s 25 colleges and universities have experienced some of the steepest cuts in the nation. Fortunately, last year’s modest funding increase helped reverse this trend, but more work is needed to offset significant budget cuts in recent years.
As a successful business owner, Gov. Stitt knows that the strongest companies are ones that continually invest in their operations and its people in order to maintain a competitive edge. The same holds true in the public sector.
During this session, we’d like to remind all of our elected officials that Oklahoma should be making meaningful reinvestment in the state, but most importantly in our people.
Oklahoma should be a state where everyone can thrive, regardless of their neighborhood, the color of their skin, or the size of their bank account. It’s time for our elected officials to step forward and do their part.