Summer Rerun: 5 reasons poverty persists in Oklahoma

This blog post, authored by Kate Richey, first ran on our blog July 25, 2012

Oklahoma children 1936, Dorothea Lange
Oklahoma children 1936, Dorothea Lange

Poverty has been a part of Oklahoma’s landscape since before statehood.  Early settlers faced enormous odds – drought, food insecurity, and nonexistent infrastructure – and possessed few material resources.  During the Great Depression, the state lost nearly half a million residents to out-migration induced by devastating poverty and famine.

Today, one in six Oklahomans (or 16.9 percent) live in poverty and nearly a third of the state’s counties have a poverty rate of 20 percent or more. Even amidst rising tides of economic prosperity, poverty continues, from one generation to the next.

The reasons are varied and complex, but stem from the material effects of poverty’s central feature – difficulty meeting basic human needs.  Here are five aspects of Oklahoma’s social, economic, and political landscape that explain poverty’s persistence.

1. Underemployment & low wage work

Employment is a prerequisite to escaping poverty.  While the statewide unemployment rate is quite low, it’s an imperfect measure of actual joblessness because of wide disparities by county and by race/ethnicity.  People in eastern Oklahoma and people of color are unemployed at much higher rates. Oklahomans are also underpaid and underemployed.  Nearly one in three jobs are in occupations where the median pay is below poverty level, and these jobs comprise an ever-increasing share of the labor market.  The state ranks 5th nationally for the share of adult workers that are not fully employed (11.4 percent).

2. Low educational attainment

Education and poverty are intertwined because educational attainment is highly correlated with employment and earnings.  Our public school system is chronically underfunded and its physical infrastructure is badly neglected.  We rank 49th for per pupil spending on common education.  In 67 of Oklahoma’s 77 counties, 2/3rds or more of adults have not completed two years of education after high school.

3. Mass incarceration

Incarceration takes a lifelong toll on an individual’s earning capacity.  Oklahoma leads the nation for the rate at which we incarcerate non-violent drug offenders and women.  There are significant barriers to stable employment and financial stability for felons and ex-offenders.  The state denies them certification for certain occupations and requires regular payments (fees, court costs, restitution, etc.) that they can ill-afford.  Between 1999 and 2004, Oklahoma quadrupled the share of ex-offenders that it imprisoned for technical violations of their release, rather than for committing a new crime.

4. Hunger & poor health

Oklahoma leads the nation in severe food insecurity, with 7.5 percent of households going hungry at some point during the year because they can’t afford food.  Oklahomans are also nearly the unhealthiest people in America, ranking 48th overall in health outcomes, with exceptionally high rates of smoking, obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and mental illness. Over 600,000 residents are uninsured, roughly 18 percent of the population.

Malnutrition, poor health, or untreated illness stunt a worker’s capacity to earn and drains their assets.  Unhealthy people are more likely to miss work, lose their job, accumulate debt, and be left to shoulder alone the ongoing and expensive burden of caring for themselves and their loved ones.

5. Inequality

Women and people of color in Oklahoma are more likely to face economic disadvantage.  They’ve been repeatedly disenfranchised and targeted with violence (both public and private).  African-Americans and Native Americans have been unemployed at nearly twice the rate of Whites since WWII.  People of color are arrestedprosecuted, and imprisoned at alarmingly high rates.

Violence against women is pandemic.  More women living in Oklahoma have been raped, stalked, or abused by a partner than in any other state.  It’s the only state in America where the life expectancy for women declined during the past decade and we have the lowest percentage of female state legislators in the country.

There is a silver lining.  In some ways, Oklahoma is actually well positioned to alleviate poverty.  Oklahomans are some of the most charitable people in the country; the state ranks 8th nationally in per capita charitable giving.  Additionally, with a natural resource base abundant in oil and natural gas, the state has and will continue to have access to a growing revenue base.  Poverty does not persist in Oklahoma because we’re not prosperous.  It persists because we’re not leveraging those public and private resources to achieve prosperity that can be widely shared.


10 thoughts on “Summer Rerun: 5 reasons poverty persists in Oklahoma

    1. Haaahahaha! I couldn’t agree more, Donna. If Oklahoma is really ranked 8th in the nation for charitable giving, I’m sure a large % of that went straight to churches and not to the general public.

      1. Sorry Harry, but especially during disasters, it is the faith community that provides the most assistance to the poor and victims of devestations. Your view of churches receiving the largest portion of “charitable giving” is grossly in error. “Charitable” does not include regular church contributions. What people give to support their churches is necessary, as is for any organzation, for them to exist. And churches exist to minister to people, and to provide more than just spiritual assistance. It is unfortunate that people seem to have such a disdain for churches these days, failing to realize the faith community does more to help people than any government agency.

    2. How is it that churches are responsible for poverty, Donna? Seems to me our federal government, moving towards encouraging dependance and entitlements rather than initiating policies that encourage free enterprise, is mostly responsible. When people are encouraged to get their $1/month phone and cable service, rely on food stamps and extended unemployment benefits rather than working two jobs and exercising a little self-discipline and spending restraint, furthering their education, poverty is inevitable. But then those who support our administration’s deliberate destruction of a self-sufficient and productive nation, won’t be able to grasp the basic concept of responsibility, sacrifice, persistence, hard work, and yes, a strong faith in God and living according to Biblical principles.

  1. Another huge reason is mental health care is deficient. Poverty is stressful, and often takes its toil on the emotional resiliency of people. A recent study from La Follette School of Public Affairs, indicates that Poverty can “get under the skin” and make changes to the way our brain works. If poverty causes depression or diminishes one’s ability to manage strong feelings without making rash decisions, then Oklahoma would need more mental health care to keep the effects of temporary or permanent poverty from having more permanent and long term consequences.

      1. Thanks Mary! I’ll check it out for sure. It reminds of something else I recently read in Discover Magazine. Researchers are exploring how the experience of something like poverty, can become intergenerational through epigenetic markers that literally attach to DNA:

        “You might have inherited not just your grandmother’s knobby knees, but also her predisposition toward depression caused by the neglect she suffered as a newborn. Or not. If your grandmother was adopted by nurturing parents, you might be enjoying the boost she received thanks to their love and support. The mechanisms of behavioral epigenetics underlie not only deficits and weaknesses but strengths and resiliencies, too.”

  2. Don’t believe me, see the facts from the U.S, Government’s Census of 2010 @.

    The facts that we have a regional university, two regional hospitals, and possibly the best indigenous people’s tribal governments, makes these figures a shame for generations guilty of genocide, greed, corruption, and wrong legislative choices.

  3. I am going to go out on a limb here, perhaps, but I would say that the overarching reason for poverty is that employment is not taught in public school from an early age, from either the employee or from the employer side.

    In second place, I would rate not teaching business at an early age as a major cause. Childhood lemonade stands are generally illegal.

    Perhaps we could start our cure by reading the Wikipedia explanations of the various terms involved in work business and poverty and how inadequate measures are.

    If profits are bad and oppress workers, then why do most people work for for-profit businesses as I believe they do? My wife and I are both retired and involved in private charities where we donate our work. Reasons for poverty are diverse, but I sometimes wonder if the cost and effort expended collecting, and distributing money and food does not exceed that of employing them instead.

    Good luck to all!

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