Oklahoma poverty numbers are part of a larger picture (Capitol Update)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

There’s an interesting, unsettling piece in a recent update by Oklahoma Policy Institute’s Courtney Cullison. It reviews new data from the Census Bureau that reminds us we are behind in Oklahoma when it comes to Oklahomans living in poverty and without health insurance. In 2017, nearly 1 in 6 Oklahomans (15.8 percent) were living with income below the poverty line ($24,600 for a family of four) before taxes. Worse, more than one in five (21.5 percent) of Oklahoma children live in a household below the poverty line. At the same time, Oklahoma’s uninsured rate increased to 14.2 percent (up from 13.8 percent in 2016.) This is the first increase in our uninsured rate since 2010 and puts us second highest in the nation of people uninsured.

These can be tough issues to deal with politically. The numbers tell us that 84.2 percent of our people are living above the poverty line and 85.8 percent have at least some kind of health care coverage. People running for office are trying to get 50 percent plus one to win an election, so they often don’t focus on people that fall into the bottom 15 percentile.

But these numbers are just part of a larger picture. There’s another much larger group of people struggling somewhere above the poverty line and living with insurance they can’t use because of high deductibles and co-pays and limited benefits. A significant segment of our population living hand to mouth and with poor health care begins to affect the lives of the larger population, and that’s when political action becomes possible. I think we are seeing a shift in this election toward candidates who will want to work for solutions to these problems.

On the surface, it looks like the election in Oklahoma is primarily about education, and it is. But schools are the place where all the pressures of society coalesce. When kids living in poverty show up at school they bring their problems with them, and they affect not only their own education, but also the teachers and the other children, which is to say the success of the school. When their uninsured or underinsured parents can’t get proper health care, their poor physical or mental health makes it nearly impossible for them to participate in their kid’s education. When teachers are among those living near poverty they quit teaching and use their education and skills to make more money doing something else.

It’s all connected. I think there is a shift this year, and the candidates who are successful in this election may be the ones that see the connection and make it part of their campaign. There are plenty of Oklahomans rooting for them. And frankly a lot of those are current legislators from both parties who are using their time and talent to make Oklahomans’ lives better, but who haven’t had enough help from some of their colleagues.

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Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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