Opportunity gap is a central, not ‘marginal’, concern for Oklahoma

chart-racial-wealth-gap-3.topLast week, State Representative Jason Nelson (R- Oklahoma City) expressed concern about a presentation given by Kate Richey, a policy analyst for Oklahoma Policy Institute, as part of a lecture series sponsored by the Oklahoma Department of Human Series. The apparent cause of Rep. Nelson’s concern, and that of at least one legislator who urged DHS to cancel the lecture, was that the talk addressed issues of racial disparities in Oklahoma. These issues, while uncomfortable to some, are a valid subject of  public debate and should be an urgent matter of legislative attention.

Oklahoma Policy Institute is committed to evidence-based analysis of state policy issues, and we will continue to promote policies that lead to expanded opportunity for all Oklahomans.  We appreciate DHS’ willingness to use its lecture series to raise awareness and foster debate on important policy issues, and applaud their decision to reject appeals made by members of the legislature to cancel the lecture.

The free public presentation, which neither Rep. Nelson nor any of his legislative colleagues attended, was titled “Closing the Opportunity Gap: Building Equity in Oklahoma.” DHS described the lecture as follows:

Kate Richey, Policy Analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute will present data and analysis on the racial wealth gap in Oklahoma – from home and business ownership to savings, investments, and other assets vital to long-term financial security.  This research points to deeply entrenched gaps in wealth, income, and employment between white and nonwhite Oklahomans.  Without equitable economic growth at the state level, broad-based prosperity and the ideal of the American dream will become increasingly out of reach.

Rep. Nelson questioned the appropriateness of DHS employees receiving continuing education credits for attending the lecture. According to Oklahoma Capitol Source:

He says [he] talked with DHS officials and suggested they offer a differing view on the topic as well. He says he’s attended some of the lectures and found them worthwhile, but that this particular lecture topic seemed “marginal.” He says he’s not against giving education credits for the lecture series as a whole, but “I don’t see the value of it for this one.”

DHS spokesperson Sharee Powell defended the decision to sponsor the lecture and qualify it as meeting continuing education requirements for the agency’s staff because “issues and effects of poverty certainly have a direct connection to the work of DHS, the primary agency serving all types of people in poverty.”

In fact, knowledge of past and present disparities in Oklahomans’ opportunities to build wealth is critical to understanding how patterns of poverty and prosperity emerge. The economic challenges facing people and communities of color in Oklahoma are not “marginal,” as Rep. Nelson claimed. They are as central to our prosperity as any other more popularly discussed economic development issue.

The presentation noted that white households possess 18 times more wealth than Hispanic households on average and 20 times more wealth than African American households, according to a 2011 study from the Pew Research Trust. Just this week, a new Urban Institute report revealed that racial wealth disparities were worsened by the Great Recession.

In Oklahoma, nearly two in five households of color experience asset poverty, meaning they have insufficient savings to last three months if they suffered a loss of income. This is twice the rate for White households. People and communities of color in Oklahoma have less access to opportunity across a broad array of indicators of economic prosperity – employment, educational achievement,  health care, home ownership,  bank accounts, and many more.  No economic development strategy can be successful in creating opportunity and increasing prosperity without an awareness of these disparities and a purposeful approach to addressing them.

We would be happy to present the research to Rep. Nelson or any other members of the Legislature who are interested in learning about entrenched asset poverty in Oklahoma at a time and place most convenient to them, and we hope that this might help to spark a serious and much-needed discussion about a policy agenda to close the opportunity gap.

The complete slideshow from the presentation is available by clicking here.  For our report outlining policies that could close the opportunity gap and promote financial security for all Oklahomans, go to https://okpolicy.org/closing-the-gap.


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.

6 thoughts on “Opportunity gap is a central, not ‘marginal’, concern for Oklahoma

  1. Hopefully, with widespread dissemination of Rep. Nelson’s attempt to conceal racial disparities, he will be VOTED OUT of office when his current term expires.

    Hats off…to Sharee Powell for standing up this bully.
    Thanks, also, to Kate Richey…for researching & making this presentation!!!

    John Lindsay

  2. I don’t know any Oklahoma voters but people must generally know this information. It is a fact of life, but it doesn’t have to be. This problem dates back to the Slave Ships in the 1600’s. The Slaves have much to do with the economic advantages created in the United States and it is time their decedents get their just deserves. The first important step is recognition.

  3. Very true….in regards to “recognition,” Mr. Smith.

    In most parts of the country, politicians and/or officeholders want to label the problem as “anything but discrimination”…such as lack of opportunities, increasing education (as if People of Color with an education…don’t experience discrimination…yeah, right), etc.

    This double talk or whitespeak…allows people to discuss the problem(s) but NEVER call it what it is….hence, many people remain ignorant as to what discrimination is and what it isn’t.
    Two, the doublespeak places the *locus of change* on the targets of the discrimination…rather than on those committing such acts.
    We can clearly see *one* of the reasons for whitespeak.
    One of the other reasons is to “avoid widespread cognitive dissonance for Whites”…upon learning…”things are not what they’ve been misled to believe.”

  4. Recognizing and naming inequities of “opportunity” by race and income is critical to any chance we may have of eliminating them. Kudos to Kate Richey and the Oklahoma Policy Institute for such solid and needed research and analysis.

  5. The economic luminaries, Reinhart and Rogoff, whose work has had enormous influence in one of the biggest economic policy debates of the age, doesn’t add up…Genius ! The entire rationale for austerity now has virtually fallen flat. Quick, somebody check Ryan’s guess work! In the political battle that involves logic, good math wins…but when it comes to social philosophy, it is a matter of the heart. It is abundantly clear that those in power intend to keep it that way and they know…to confuse is to conquer

  6. “The New Jim Crow” describes the disparities pointed out by Sharee Powell and Kate Richey. Michelle Alexander’s book is a must read for all of us. Until the white community learns to walk in another’s shoes, the status quo will remain. Thank you, ladies, and continue on.

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