Weekly Wonk: Poverty comes from structural barriers, not personal choices | A look at the upcoming special session | More

What’s up this week at Oklahoma Policy Institute? The Weekly Wonk shares our most recent publications and other resources to help you stay informed about Oklahoma. Numbers of the Day and Policy Notes are from our daily news briefing, In The Know. Click here to subscribe to In The Know.

This Week from OK Policy

Taking a deeper look at the latest special session call (Capitol Update): The Oklahoma Constitution provides for a regular session of the legislature once a year, but last week Gov. Kevin Stitt called the third special session for 2023 to begin on Oct. 3. This follows two special sessions in 2022, one in 2021, and two in 2020. Special sessions are provided for in the Constitution, but they are called Extraordinary Sessions. If the name means anything, you’d think special sessions would be rare. [Steve Lewis / Capitol Update]

Policy Matters: Poverty comes from structural barriers, not personal choices: Oklahomans can’t afford to ignore the state’s continued high poverty rate. To reverse these trends, the first step will require residents and elected officials to recognize that poverty is not an individual choice, but one created by structural barriers. No one chooses to live in poverty. Poverty – and the difficulty in breaking its generational cycle – stems from larger, interrelated systems and societal structures that make it harder for some people to provide for their families. [Shiloh Kantz / Journal Record]

  • ICYMI: 2022 Census data: Oklahoma remains among the nation’s poorest states; policy solutions can help reverse this trend [OK Policy]

Weekly What’s That

Housing Choice Voucher Program (Section 8)

The Housing Choice Voucher Program (also known as Housing Choice Voucher Program Section 8) is the nation’s largest housing assistance program. Under the program, eligible recipients receive housing vouchers that they can use to rent apartments or homes from participating landlords. Voucher recipients are responsible for paying 30 percent of a unit’s housing costs, with the voucher covering the remainder of the rest up to a limit, called a payment standard, that is based on local estimates of fair market rate. Seventy-five percent of new recipients of vouchers must have “extremely low income,” defined as below the federal poverty level or 30 percent of the area median income, whichever is higher.

The Section 8 program is operated nationally by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), in partnership with some 2,170 state and local public housing agencies (PHAs). In Oklahoma, Section 8 vouchers are administered by the Oklahoma Housing Finance Authority and by some 105 local PHAs that are responsible for establishing fair market rate standards and verifying that rental units meet federal housing quality standards. Each agency has a cap on the number of vouchers it administers.

Nationally, housing choice vouchers serve some 5 million people, of whom 40 percent are children and 13 percent are over the age of 62. The program has been shown to sharply reduce homelessness, lift more than a million people above the poverty line, and give families more options of where to live.  However, due to funding limitations, all federal housing assistance programs combined serve only about 1 in 4 households that would qualify for assistance.

In addition to vouchers that can be used to rent units that tenants select, up to 30 percent of vouchers can be used for subsidies — called project-based vouchers — that are tied to a particular property rather than a particular family and thus can help pay for the construction or rehabilitation of housing for people with low incomes. Project-based vouchers serve some 245,000 households nationally.

Look up more key terms to understand Oklahoma politics and government here.

Quote of the Week

“It just depends on if we want to follow the law or not, and this office is all about the rule of law. As the Oklahoma Constitution and the federal Constitution are currently drafted, a charter school is a state actor, and it cannot be a parochial school.”

– Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, responding to a request from Ryan Walters and OSDE that a district judge dismiss a lawsuit aimed at stopping the nation’s first religious charter school. [KOCO]

Editorial of the Week

Tulsa World Editorial: Oklahoma lawmakers don’t like it when citizens bypass them to get laws passed

Oklahoma lawmakers are all about the will of the people, until they disagree with it. That’s why so many of them want to make it harder for initiative petitions to get to a ballot. It’s short-sighted, arrogant and undemocratic.

It’s also out of preserving their power and fear of change.

With a Republican supermajority at the Legislature and all state elected officials belonging to the GOP, there is little incentive to listen to constituents. The tendency is to follow the party platform and talking points.

But, the Oklahoma Constitution has guaranteed since its adoption in 1907 an avenue for citizens legislation. The details are up to lawmakers, but the principle is that voters have a way to bypass the Legislature and governor, if needed.

This happens when elected leaders ignore their constituents, who then feel no other choice but to gather enough signatures for a statewide vote. It’s not an easy process, but the outcome reflects the desires of the electorate.

In the past decade, many Oklahoma lawmakers have been frustrated by initiative petitions that created laws they didn’t want. This includes expanding Medicaid, reforming some criminal justice laws and legalizing medical marijuana.

Lawmakers should have acknowledged this disconnect with voters and pledged to do better. Instead, many are seeking roadblocks to future initiative petition efforts. This has intensified with the possibility of petitions being used for abortion access, voting reforms and another try at recreational marijuana.

The problem isn’t with the initiative petitions, it’s with out-of-touch and stubborn elected representatives.

We’ll remind lawmakers they swore to uphold and defend the Oklahoma Constitution that states “All political power is inherent in the people …”

It’s already a tough slog getting an initiative petition to an Oklahoma ballot. Critics argue that the 90-day limit for gathering the required signatures — 8% of registered voters for statutory measures, 15% for constitutional amendments — benefits causes with deep financial backing.

Rather than make it easier on citizens, many lawmakers are doing the opposite.

Some propose raising the threshold of signatures, upping the passage percentage, adding more costs or tinkering with timelines. After House 3862 passed in 2020, it’s blamed for the recreational cannabis measure missing the general election ballot and doubling the cost of printing and processing, according to a story from Tulsa World reporter Randy Krehbiel.

Elected officials bemoan the imperfections in the petition process, such as the loosely worded medical marijuana proposal kicking open the door to criminal activity. Lawmakers could have prevented that by implementing the law themselves or pre-emptively creating an enforcement infrastructure.

Some pompously claim voters don’t understand what they are signing or voting on with these petitions. We disagree.

[Editorial / Tulsa World]

Numbers of the Day

  • 11.7% – Oklahoma’s uninsured rate declined from 13.8% in 2021 to 11.7% during 2022, which had one of the nation’s highest improvements during this period thanks to Medicaid expansion and pandemic-relief coverage. [U.S. Census Data via OK Policy
  • 19.5% – Percentage of Oklahoma children who lived in households at or below the federal poverty level in 2022. Oklahoma had the nation’s 8th highest rate of child poverty in 2022. [U.S. Census via OK Policy]
  • 17.2% – The poverty rate for females in Oklahoma, compared to 14.2% for males. [U.S. Census via OK Policy
  • 600,000 – Number of Oklahomans (about 1 in 6) living at or below the Federal Poverty Level in 2022, which was about $13,000 for an individual and $28,000 for a family of four. [U.S. Census Data via OK Policy]
  • 25.3% – The poverty rate for Black Oklahomans in 2022, which was more than 1 in 4 of the state’s Black residents. This was almost double the 12.8% poverty rate for white Oklahomans. [U.S. Census via OK Policy]

What We’re Reading

  • Record Low Uninsured Rate Offers Roadmap to Long-Term Coverage Gains: The reduction in the uninsured rate shows that policy can drive major coverage gains. In particular, the drop in the uninsured rate was driven by pandemic-era Medicaid protections, Affordable Care Act (ACA) Medicaid expansions, and policies that improved access and affordability in the ACA marketplace. Although the recent expiration of pandemic-era Medicaid protections is now causing many to lose their coverage, the policies that led to 2022’s historically low uninsured rate provide a roadmap to future coverage gains. [Center on Budget and Policy Priorities]
  • Lapse of Expanded Child Tax Credit Led to Unprecedented Rise in Nation’s Child Poverty Rate: Lawmakers accomplished something commendable in 2021 when they expanded the Child Tax Credit (CTC) and cut child poverty in half, the largest drop ever recorded. Despite requests from President Biden to extend the credit enhancements, Congress allowed those measures to expire at the end of 2021. With the Census Bureau’s release of new poverty data covering 2022, we now know what happened when the credit expansion ended, and the results are not particularly surprising: the nation lost the dramatic gains made against child poverty in 2021. [Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy]
  • The Basic Facts About Women in Poverty (2020): Women, especially women of color, in the United States are more likely to live in poverty than men, and they need robust, targeted solutions to ensure their long-term economic security. This factsheet presents a snapshot of women in poverty, explain why women experience higher rates of poverty, and explore the policy solutions that can best ensure lasting economic security for women and their families. [Center for American Progress]
  • Poverty: A Literature Summary: The United States measures poverty based on how an individual’s or family’s income compares to a set federal threshold. Poverty often occurs in concentrated areas and endures for long periods of time. Some communities, such as certain racial and ethnic groups, people living in rural areas, and people with disabilities, have a higher risk of poverty for a myriad of factors that extend beyond individual control. [U.S. Department of Health and Human Services]
  • Poverty Results from Structural Barriers, Not Personal Choices. Safety Net Programs Should Reflect That Fact (2021): Many families—especially people of color, who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic—were already facing severe economic challenges because of structural barriers preventing them from reaping the benefits of a strong economy. These families sometimes rely on federal safety net programs to access the resources they need to afford food, rent, and other necessities. But the social safety net is fundamentally inequitable. The structure of programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) ignore systemic barriers rooted in structural racism that disproportionately affect people of color, especially Black Americans. Instead, these programs are meager and punitive, designed to blame individual shortcomings—even though evidence debunks the myth that laziness or poor choices cause poverty. [Urban Institute]


David Hamby has more than 25 years of experience as an award-winning communicator, including overseeing communication programs for Oklahoma higher education institutions and other organizations. Before joining OK Policy, he was director of public relations for Rogers State University where he managed the school’s external communication programs and served as a member of the president’s leadership team. He served in a similar communications role for five years at the University of Tulsa. He also has worked in communications roles at Oklahoma State University and the Fort Smith Chamber of Commerce in Arkansas. He joined OK Policy in October 2019.

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