The new statistics reveal that complex forces are driving up poverty rates in Oklahoma.
Last week, the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a non-partisan think-tank that assesses the impact of state level policy, issued its yearly report on statistics concerning poverty in Oklahoma. The statistics come from the United States Census Bureau’s Survey on the American Community in 2017. The survey shows that Oklahoma’s numbers fare worse than the national average, but the report from OK Policy contextualizes and explains the nuances of the study.
The poverty rate is one of the most used statistics to understand the degree of economic inequality in a given city, state or country. To calculate the rate, the federal government establishes a Federal Poverty Threshold (FPL). That threshold sets a level of income, while accounting for household size, known as the poverty line, and any family that falls below that line is considered in poverty. The FPL allows studies and statistics like this to be gathered, and also informs the government of who qualifies for certain social services such as Medicaid.
621,076 Oklahomans fell below the poverty line in 2017. This accounts for 15.8 percent of the population. That is more than two points higher than the national average, which stands at 13.4 percent. This continues a more than 10-year trend of Oklahoma having a higher rate than the nation at large. In fact, that gap has widened in the past few years.
A deeper dive into the numbers reveals five key trends about poverty in Oklahoma: 1: More children live in poverty in Oklahoma than adults, with seniors having the lowest poverty rate of any age demographic. 2: Families who have gone through a divorce are at greater risk of poverty. 3: The more education one receives, the less likely one is to live in poverty. 4: Residents of small towns are at a greater risk of poverty than those in metro areas. 5: Though a higher percentage of racial minorities are in poverty, the most impoverished racial demographic is white.
That last trend could easily be touted without the nuance that is key to understanding race and poverty in a state like Oklahoma. One could simply make the claim that most people living in poverty are white, and they would not be wrong. However, that fact is due more to Oklahoma’s overwhelmingly white racial majority than anything else. In fact, in order of Black, Latino, American Indian, Asian American and White, those identifying as white are the safest racial demographic from poverty.
Oklahoma’s poverty numbers, though discouraging, do not compare to the kinds of crises that Oklahomans face in the areas of education, healthcare and incarceration. However, those are the three underlying causes, according to OK Policy, that result in the dismal poverty rate.
This makes sense. Oklahoma education is in the midst of a crisis that has already prompted one teacher walkout. Governor Mary Fallin denied Medicare expansion under the Affordable Care Act, resulting in Oklahoma having some of the highest uninsured rates in the nation. The State of Oklahoma is also the most highly-incarcerated region in the world.
OK Policy ends their report with a dire warning. Unless Oklahoma does the work of tackling the causes of poverty, Oklahoma children and families will continue to face serious barriers to prosperity.