The changing map of poverty and race in Oklahoma

Previously on this blog, we’ve discussed Oklahoma’s long history of high poverty and the reasons for its persistence. We’ve also discussed the racial wealth and opportunity gap of our state, in which people of color as a group lag behind White households in assets that are crucial for financial security, like homeownership, education, good health, and savings. These gaps reflect a long history of asset-stripping by violence, fraud, and discrimination against people of color, which deprived both the immediate victims and many of their descendants, who were not able to build on the wealth of past generations.

 That’s not to say that we haven’t made progress, or that the face of poverty in Oklahoma today is identical to what it was in the past. An interactive map by the Urban Institute’s MetroTrends project helps reveal what has changed and what hasn’t. The map shows the race of people in poverty and where they lived from 1980 to 2010.

In many large cities, the geography of poverty has changed considerably, going from racially segregated inner-city neighborhoods to more diverse and surburban areas of poverty. In Oklahoma City, the change looks like this (you can view an interactive version here):


Each dot on the map represents 20 Oklahomans living in poverty, color-coded by race. In 1980 poverty could be found across Oklahoma City, but African-Americans were largely segregated on the east side of town. Racial groups other than Whites and African-Americans were present only in small numbers.

By 2010, high-poverty areas had become much more diverse. While the poverty in east Oklahoma City is still predominately African-American, these families can be found much more in other parts of the city as well. The other big change is a large increase in the number of Hispanics in south and central Oklahoma City. The arrival of low-income Hispanics has also increased the total number living in poverty.

Here’s what Tulsa looked like in those same years (interactive version):


Like Oklahoma City, poverty could be found throughout Tulsa both in 1980 and 2010, and the number of Hispanics living in poverty was dramatically higher in 2010. Low-income African-Americans remain largely segregated in north Tulsa, though by 2010 we can see more of these families in other parts of the city.

So what lessons can we take from these maps? First, it is another reminder that Oklahoma’s future prosperity depends on finding a way to help Oklahomans of all races access better opportunities. About half of the state’s overall growth in the last decade has been Hispanic. About 80 percent of these Hispanics are U.S. citizens, which means that whatever happens with immigration reform at the federal level, these Oklahomans will remain a large part of our state. Yet 35 percent of these residents are uninsured, and 43 percent of Oklahoma Hispanics 25 and older do not have a high school diploma. If we want a healthy population and an educated workforce, we need to close these gaps.

Another lesson from these maps is that the racial divisions of our history remain alive today. The continuing housing segregation in north Tulsa is especially stark. Meanwhile, data on economic mobility shows that segregation of poor communities has a strong correlation with poverty continuing across generations.  Concentrated poverty and limited public-transit systems mean that for too many, job opportunities simply aren’t accessible.


Gene Perry worked for OK Policy from 2011 to 2019. He is a native Oklahoman and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation. He graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in journalism.

2 thoughts on “The changing map of poverty and race in Oklahoma

  1. I found this searching “Why is east oklahoma city so poor”. Being a GIS geek I appreciate the spatial visualization. It’s uncanny how the poor regions are now prime opportunity zones not only because of the disparity and looting of previous generations, but also because of the prevalence of critical infrastructure and resources that used to be housed on the outskirts of town (electric, fiber, transit) is directly in the epicenter of some of poorest lowest income areas. In Lawton it is the Southwest part of town.

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