Systemic poverty 

Reducing poverty remains one of Oklahoma's greatest challenges in the early 21st century.
Poverty, in the state's historical context, is systemic and has gut-wrenching realities, such as basic hunger. It's also a major part of the state's mythology. Oklahoma's image as a "poor state" has endured " fairly or not " since the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl in the 1930s.

All Oklahomans, whether rich or poor, are affected by poverty. The tangible impact is everywhere to be seen across the state, and it winds up collectively costing state residents in taxes for social and health programs. But there's also a less definable psychic impact surrounding poverty that takes its toll on Oklahomans. This can lead to benign acceptance as many state residents become desensitized to the suffering around them.

Poverty also serves as the one umbrella condition for so many of the state's social problems, including a high hunger rate, poor health outcomes, alcohol and drug abuse, mental illnesses, poor school performance and a high rate of incarceration. People can overcome their poverty-stricken backgrounds, but many can't, and they are often left with psychological and other health problems that cost everyone in the state. Hunger and despair can also lead to desperate decisions.

In his 2000 book, "Waltzing with the Ghost of Tom  Joad: Poverty, Myth, and Low-Wage Labor in Oklahoma," Robert Maril points out that although the state's number of poor people has declined since former President Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty in the 1960s, the state poverty rate remained above the national average through the 1990s. Maril writes, "Oklahoma has unusually high poverty rates when compared to rest of the nation."

Recent statistics show the trend continues. In 2008, for example, 15.9 percent of all Oklahomans lived at or below the poverty level set at $22,025 for a family of four, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The national rate was 13.2 percent. True, the state poverty rate is down from 17 percent in 2006, but much higher than the 2000 rate of 13.8 percent. In 2008, 22 percent of Oklahoma children under18 were considered poor " a fact that foreshadows a plethora of future social problems, which will cost money and cause much suffering.

Meanwhile, a recent Self-Sufficiency Standard for Oklahoma 2009 study showed that costs for state families has increased faster than inflation the last seven years. David Blatt, the policy director of the Oklahoma Policy Institute, a state think tank that often focuses on poverty, recently proposed a series of ideas to help low- and moderate-income Oklahomans build more assets.

The ideas include improving college saving plans, increasing access to Insure Oklahoma, reforming consumer lending practices, eliminating the asset test in the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, increasing the personal exemption on state income tax and expanding tax credit programs.

These are sensible ideas that can help. Donations to local food banks and charities can help. But what's probably needed more than anything else is for more Oklahomans to realize how poverty is deeply rooted in the state's history and remains the foundation for so many of the state's social problems.

As Maril notes, "We must as a state begin to partner with the poor, to see their best interests as everyone's best interests."
Hochenauer is an English professor at the University of Central Oklahoma and the author of the Okie Funk blog.

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Kurt Hochenauer

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