ENID, Okla. —
Go to any public place in Oklahoma with a broad cross-section of people and take a look around. Every sixth Oklahoman you see, on average, will be officially poor.
That’s a big improvement over five decades ago, when the average was closer to one in three.
Much of the progress came during the decade following President Lyndon Johnson’s promise to wage an “unconditional” war on poverty 50 years ago this month. Congress followed up that Jan. 8, 1964, State of the Union address by expanding Social Security and food stamps and launching programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Head Start and Job Corps.
Yet despite the improving poverty picture in Oklahoma, advocates for the poor cite trends they consider troubling:
• While Oklahoma’s official poverty rate fell from 30 percent in 1959 to 17 percent in 2012, it remains stubbornly higher than the national rate, which declined from 22 percent to 15 percent over the same period. Oklahoma is still a comparatively poor state, with the nation’s 16th-highest poverty rate.
• Oklahoma’s poverty population is increasingly young. The poverty rate for Oklahomans 65 and older has declined dramatically, from 39 percent in 1969 to 10 percent in 2012. The rate for children under 18 has risen from 20 percent to 24 percent over the same period. For children under 5, the current rate is 31 percent.
• For a disproportionately high number of Oklahomans, a job does not provide a ticket out of poverty. Oklahoma has the nation’s third-highest rate of people working at or below the minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. A single parent who works full-time at minimum wage and has one or more dependents still falls below the poverty line.
“The face of the poor for us are generally people who are working,” said Andrew Rice, executive director of Variety Care Foundation, which supports a group of low-cost health clinics across the state.
“It seems there was a time when having a job was the key to not struggling,” Rice said. “Now, having a job, particularly if it’s part-time, does not necessarily mean all your economic problems are going to go away.”
It’s an endless debate that goes something like this.
Supporters: Federal programs like food stamps and unemployment benefits soften the blow of poverty and make it easier for poor people to make positive changes in their lives. Critics: Government subsidies lull poor people into a cycle of dependency by giving them just enough to get by, often without working.
Some low-income people who depend on benefits say both sides are right. Even as they struggle to be self-sufficient, they see others who can’t or won’t break from dependency.
Brittney Scott, 23, a single mother of two who lives in Tulsa, said people have confronted her over the government aid she receives.
“They’ve said every dollar of my food comes out of their pockets. I know it comes from taxpayer money, but it’s not like I’m here for the long run,” Scott said. “I don’t want to have to have all this stuff.”
Scott lives off the money she receives each month from Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a federally funded, state-administered grant program for low-income families with children.
Scott dropped out of high school when her family moved to Tulsa from Lenapah in Nowata County before her senior year. She said living in a city riddled with drug use and gang violence made it easy to become an addict herself.
Her abuse of methamphetamine and marijuana almost cost Scott her kids.
“The breaking point for me was when I looked back at what I said to the judge in court about my daughter. I actually told him, ‘You can take her. I can just have another one,’” she said.
Even after finishing substance abuse treatment through Tulsa County’s Family Drug Court and being clean for two years, the words she threw at the judge still haunt her.
She decided to go back to school.
For three months, Scott has been taking General Educational Development classes at the South Tulsa Community House, which provides educational opportunities, food, transportation and counseling services to people in the area.
Math is a challenge, but relearning algebra and untangling complicated essay prompts will be worthwhile when Scott takes the GED. She hopes to pass by February.
TANF provides Scott about $600 a month to care for her two children, Hailee, 2, and Dalton, 1. She also receives $490 in food stamps and free day-care services while she attends class.
Before moving in with her parents, Scott paid $25 a month for a Section 8-subsidized unit in the Fairmont Terrace apartment complex. The rent normally would be $825. The complex, which was the site of a quadruple homicide in January 2013, is located in an area where 44 percent of residents live below the poverty level, according to data from the Census Bureau.
Scott sees getting her GED, attending college and making use of TANF in the meantime as a way to escape the area’s violence and poverty. She knows not everyone approves of the government money provided to mothers in her situation, but by the time she reaches her five-year maximum of TANF benefits, she hopes to be done with school.
Her ultimate goal is to find a job with her new degree and move back to Lenapah with her children.
“I can’t live without my daughter and son,” Scott said. “I’m not going to lose them.”
According to the Census Bureau, 637,429 Oklahomans fell below the poverty level in 2012 — $11,170 for a single person, $15,130 for two people, $23,050 for a family of four. The figures are based on federal estimates of the amount of cash income it takes a family to cover basic expenses such as food, housing, utilities and clothes.
The big decline in poverty among the elderly is perhaps the most striking accomplishment of the 50-year period. Census Bureau analysts say it is a nationwide phenomenon, and reflects the expansion of Social Security benefits to include many people who weren’t covered when the “War on Poverty” began.
Besides age, several other key factors jump out of the welter of government statistics for 2012, the most recent year for which data is available.
• Work status: Most poor Oklahomans are unemployed or underemployed. Excluding children, 17 percent did not work during the previous 12 months, while 32 percent worked part-time or part of the year. Only 11 percent had full-time, year-round jobs.
• Family structure: Two-parent households are much more financially secure than single-parent families. The poverty rate for Oklahomans in single-parent households headed by females is 37 percent. In married-couple families, it’s 9 percent.
• Education: People with less education are far more likely to be poor. The official poverty rate is 28 percent for adults over 25 who didn’t finish high school, 15 percent for those who stopped with a high school diploma, and 5 percent for those who completed college.
• Race and ethnicity: The poverty rate remains much higher for African-Americans — 30 percent — but Oklahoma’s rapidly-expanding Hispanic population is not far behind at 29 percent. The poverty rate is 23 percent for Native Americans. Although the rate for non-Hispanic whites is comparatively low — 13 percent — the population of poor whites outnumbers all the other groups combined, at 336,400.
Census Bureau analysts say their official poverty figures actually understate the gains made over the last five decades because they don’t take into account the value of non-cash assistance such as food stamps and housing subsidies.
Government programs have helped keep poverty in check, according to Census Bureau researchers. But they are fighting against several big fundamental trends putting upward pressure on the poverty rate.
Among them: The globalization of the labor market has reduced pay rates for unskilled work, making it more difficult to earn a living wage. Meanwhile, the declining percentage of two-parent families has pushed many families below the poverty line.
“God bless the single moms with two or three kids who are trying to make it happen on a minimum-wage job,” said former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, who now heads the Education and Employment Ministry in Oklahoma City. “It becomes very, very difficult.”
The public safety net for people in poverty is far more generous than it was five decades ago. But it contains some big holes, particularly in Oklahoma.
Russell Perry of Turley can attest to that.
Perry, 52, qualified for Social Security disability income two years ago because he has severe hypertension, kidney disease and an aortic aneurism. Because of his disability, he also qualifies for health coverage through Medicare.
Perry receives about $18,000 a year in disability payments for himself, plus about $3,000 earmarked for his 17-year-old daughter Sarah, who is finishing high school.
On that $21,000, Perry is supporting a household of six. His wife Tamara, 49, has been unemployed for about three years. She’s been unable to find a job, and her unemployment benefits have run out. She’s attending school to become an accountant.
Another daughter, Danielle, 24, is staying with the Perrys, along with her two daughters, ages 5 and 3. Danielle, who’s unemployed, is planning to get a nursing assistant certification after she has her third child, due in the spring.
All six people are staying in a trailer that Perry and his wife acquired through a rent-to-buy arrangement. The federal poverty level for a family of six is $31,590.
Because of the way the rules are written, though, the family doesn’t qualify for food stamps, and Tamara and Danielle don’t qualify for SoonerCare, the state’s Medicaid program. Gov. Mary Fallin rejected an Obama administration proposal that would have expanded Medicaid to include them. For now, they will remain uninsured.
Perry said he’s grateful for the income he receives from Social Security, but wishes the government would do more to help poor people receive medical care and find jobs.
He said he went on unemployment at several points during his career, most of which was in restaurant management. In the late 1990s, he said, the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission quickly helped him arrange interviews with prospective employers. He was back at work within a few weeks.
But when his last job ended about four years ago, the agency seemed far less interested in trying to help him do anything other than collect his benefits. He said his wife had a similar experience during her latest bout with unemployment.
“From what I saw, they went from trying to help you find a job to helping you get the money,” Perry said. “Then, when the benefits run out, it’s like they wipe their hands and say, ‘There’s nothing we can do to help you.’
“We weren’t looking for government handouts. We just wanted to go back to work.”
Advocates for the poor and poor people themselves say it’s unrealistic to expect government programs to eliminate poverty in Oklahoma, or America for that matter.
They say the causes of poverty are many, and the roots run deep. Government assistance may have reduced the pain of being poor over the last 50 years, but it hasn’t, and probably never could, make it go away.
Father Michael Chapman, 72, is pastor at Holy Angels Church, a predominately poor, Hispanic congregation near downtown Oklahoma City. He said President Johnson’s initiative was an important milestone in what Chapman sees as a necessary and never-ending partnership between the public and private sectors to try to address the root causes of poverty. He was a 22-year-old seminary student at Cardinal Glennon College in St. Louis when the War on Poverty was declared.
“There’s a phrase I learned in the seminary — charity always evolves into justice,” Chapman said.
“You can’t just stick with giving out Christmas baskets. That doesn’t work. If one year you decide to give them a Thanksgiving dinner and the next year you don’t do it, well, you’ve lied to ’em,” he said.
“There’s something that grows out of that charity. You begin to see that it’s not just the turkey dinner. There’s something that leads up to the reason the person doesn’t have turkey on Thanksgiving. That’s the justice part of it. Why is this family poor? Why is it that this has to be done? If you hang in there long enough, you’re going to be asking yourself these questions.”
Oklahoma Watch is a nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism service that produces in-depth and investigative journalism on important public-policy issues facing the state. For more Oklahoma Watch content, go to http://www.oklahomawatch.org.