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Poverty picture


Kurt Hochenauer December 2nd, 2010

There's still too much suffering and more needs to be done in the fight against systemic impoverishment here.

There are seemingly conflicting federal survey numbers about the depth of poverty in Oklahoma these days, but all the facts taken together show that there's still too much suffering and more needs to be done in the fight against systemic impoverishment here.

A U.S. Census report in September claimed the state's poverty level actually declined from 13.6 percent in 2008 to 12.9 percent in 2009. Sounds somewhat encouraging, right? Well, a different U.S. Census report from the American Community Survey released in late September showed the poverty level here increased from 15.9 percent in 2008 to 16.2 percent in 2009.

The second set of numbers is the most reliable because the survey is based on more households, according to David Blatt, director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, which closely monitors poverty here.

In a recent poverty profile on Oklahoma, Blatt noted that based on the American Community Survey, approximately 578,000 people lived in poverty in 2009. That's a staggering number by any reckoning. The 2009 poverty level was set at $22,025 for a family of four.

Blatt pointed out that children and women have higher rates of poverty than men. Blatt noted, "Among Oklahoma families with children, families headed by single mothers are more (than) five times as likely to be in poverty (45.5 percent) as families headed by married couples (8.9 percent)."

In August, the state Department of Human Services reported a continued increase in the number of residents who received assistance from the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), formerly referred to as food stamps. In July, according to DHS, 598,126 people received SNAP assistance, which was an increase of 9,792 from the previous month. In 2009, more than half of Oklahoma's 900,000 children received SNAP benefits, SoonerCare (Medicaid) or both.

Whenever a state with the population size of Oklahoma is adding close to 10,000 people a month to a government-run food assistance program, it's a stark indicator of extremely tough financial times and much human suffering. That half the state's children are on some form of government assistance doesn't bode well for Oklahoma's future.

State food banks have also been reporting an increase in demand. The Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma reports one in five children experiences hunger.

Meanwhile, home foreclosure rates were on the rise this summer. According to a media report, the July foreclosure rate in Oklahoma was 30 percent higher than the same month last year, though it did represent a drop from the previous month.

What all this means is that a sizable and growing segment of Oklahoma's population is suffering, even as the state's economy seems to be doing better than in some other places.

Many people agree education is the solution.

According to Blatt's 2009 poverty profile, "Poverty is closely correlated with education " someone with only a high school degree is more than three times as likely to be poor as a college graduate, and those who did not graduate high school are seven times likelier to be poor than college graduates. Almost one-third of poor Oklahomans over age 25 (29.6 percent) did not graduate high school."  

Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the Okie Funk blog.
 
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