Oklahoma is not a poor state – we just continue to play one on TV

Back in March, the Bureau of Economic Analysis released 2008 data on state personal income, which is the most widely used measure of a state’s relative prosperity. We took note of it at the time in our April Numbers You Need bulletin, focusing on Oklahoma’s rank as the state with the fourth strongest rate of growth in  personal income 5.4 percent for the year.

Perhaps the bigger story, which hasn’t received much attention,  is that the state’s strong economic growth over the course of this decade has propelled Oklahoma from near the bottom to the middle rungs of states in per capita personal income. As recently as 2000, Oklahoma ranked 42nd in state per capita personal income at $23,582. Between 2000 and 2008, Oklahoma’s per capita personal income jumped 51.2 percent, fourth among the states behind only Wyoming, Louisiana,  and North Dakota (all, not coincidentally, states that have shared in the boom in mineral prices of recent years). As of 2008, Oklahoma ranks 28th with per capita personal income of $36,899, which is less than $3,000 below the national average of  $39,751. Oklahoma ranks above every southern state except Florida and Texas, and has surged past not only declining Rust Belt states like Ohio (32nd), Michigan (34th)and Indiana (39th), but also such seemingly dynamic southern and western states as Oregon (31st), North Carolina (36th), Georgia (40th) and Arizona (42nd).

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as if Oklahoma’s newfound prosperity is translating into stronger outcomes on the major indicators of personal and social well-being. Oklahoma continues to rank high on way too many bad things – people living in poverty, chronic health conditions, suicides, teen pregnancy, child abuse, incarceration – and low on too many good things – overall health status, percentage of residents with health insurance, college graduates, per pupil student expenditures. As of 2006, we ranked 46th among the states in per capita spending on state and local government, which hampers our ability to invest in those public structures – strong schools and universities, economic infrastructure, quality health care and mental health services – that can help us reach our common goals. This, in turn, reflects a strong aversion to taxes – in 2006, we ranked 42nd in the nation in total state and local taxes per capita and as a share of personal income.

Even if 2008 marked the peak of the state’s economic boom, it’s likely we will remain in the middle rung of states in personal income and perhaps even move further up the rankings as other states struggle with a deeper recession. It may take time for this reality of Oklahoma as something other than a poor state to set in and for us to shed old ways of thinking and abandon old excuses. But as it does, we hope that all of us can seize the opportunity to imagine and implement new policies and new approaches that will ensure that our growing wealth leads to more economic opportunities, better education and health, and greater security for all Oklahomans.


Former Executive Director David Blatt joined OK Policy in 2008 and served as its Executive Director from 2010 to 2019. He previously served as Director of Public Policy for Community Action Project of Tulsa County and as a budget analyst for the Oklahoma State Senate. He has a Ph.D. in political science from Cornell University and a B.A. from the University of Alberta. David has been selected as Political Scientist of the Year by the Oklahoma Political Science Association, Local Social Justice Champion by the Dan Allen Center for Social Justice, and Public Citizen of the Year by the National Association of Social Workers.

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