The public safety net at work

Today we released the 19th issue of our monthly Numbers You Need bulletin, which tracks monthly and quarterly data for key economic indicators. As in many recent months, the overall economic news was mixed: a slight increase in employment and rebound in state revenues, offset by continued high numbers of bankruptcy filings. But while we have seen  fluctuations in many indicators of the state’s economic well-being over the course of the economic downturn,  one constant has been an increasing number of Oklahomans turning to public programs for assistance with food and medical care. In March, participation in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly food stamps) rose for the 24th consecutive month (it has since risen again in April and May). Meanwhile, enrollment rose for the 15th straight month in March in SoonerCare (Medicaid), the federal-state health insurance program for low-income individuals in various categories.

This chart (which is based on DHS monthly statistical bulletins available here) shows monthly participation for both programs going back to January 2008: Both programs reached all-time participation highs in March. The 575,898 food stamp recipients that month represented an increase of 28 percent compared to 12 months before and an astounding 40 percent increase compared to March 2008. The growth in Medicaid beneficiaries was slightly less dramatic – the 690,055 Oklahomans covered by SoonerCare in March was a 15 percent increase from June 2008. The two programs now serve between one in five and one in seven Oklahomans, including an especially high percentage of children.

We would expect that as the economic recovery gains steam, these enrollment numbers will begin to level off, as more people regain employment that provides them enough income to cover their basic needs and offers private health insurance. However, we shouldn’t anticipate any swift or sudden drop in participation. Even in healthier economic times, a substantial portion of Oklahoma’s population relies on the public safety net for adequate food and medical care. And even with public programs and a vigorous network of non-profit agencies and faith-based groups, some families still fall short or fall through the cracks. But during these hard times in particular, the support provided  by programs like SoonerCare and food stamps is making the difference in helping hundreds of thousands of economically vulnerable Oklahoman households just make it through from one month to the next.


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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