State continues its struggle with poverty
BY JULIE DELCOUR Associate Editor
Sunday, January 20, 2013
1/20/13 at 7:08 AM
Oklahoma remains a cellar dweller by most quality-of-life measures.
The state's scores in health and fitness are perennially poor; we spend far less on per-pupil funding for students than nearly any other state. We are near the top, for about 25 years running, in per-capita incarceration.
We fare relatively poorly in level of education, and we have an alarmingly high number of Oklahomans living near or below the poverty line.
We've sent flowers to Mississippi and several other southern states many times to thank them for keeping Oklahoma out of last place rankings.
Yet despite all those bottom-feeder showings, there is some positive news. Oklahoma managed to come out of the Great Recession much better than some of the states ranking much higher in state conditions.
Earlier this month, 247wallst.com, a research website and blog for stock market investors, ranked the states that showed the best level of recovery and those that showed the least level of recovery during the Great Recession.
Oklahoma came in a surprising No. 24. What stood it in better stead than half the country were revenues from the energy industry and low unemployment - seventh lowest in the U.S. At the recession's peak, Oklahoma had 7.2 percent unemployment. Earlier this month the rate had dipped to 5.2 percent.
Oklahoma also largely avoided the housing and mortgage fiasco that devastated residents and harmed the economies in such states as Nevada, Arizona and Florida.
"Between the second quarters of 2007 and 2012, home prices in Oklahoma increased by 3 percent, making it one of just five states where home prices rose in that time," analysts said.
So, who came out on top in making the best recovery? Oddly enough, it was Michigan, which experienced a 5.1 percent unemployment decline from the peak of the recession. In November 2007, when the nation was on the brink of the worst economic recession in 70 years, Michigan had the worst economy in the U.S., its unemployment rate a full percentage point higher than any other state.
Once the recession hit, Michigan got pounded. Unemployment nearly doubled, peaking at 14.2 percent by August 2009. For the past two years Michigan has been in the top 10 for gross domestic product growth thanks to a resurgent auto industry. While its unemployment rate remains high, it is now better than five other states.
The moral of the Michigan resurgence appears to be: Start from dead last in the pack and almost any gains in GDP and employment will get you a most-improved award. Which state fared the worst? According to 24/7, no state has struggled to recover from the recession as much as New Jersey. While most other states' unemployment rates peaked during the recession, New Jersey's peaked in August 2012 at 9.9 percent. The state's workforce had an especially difficult year, and that was before Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the state's shoreline in mid-November.
The analysts at 24/7 also took a look at the best- and the worst-run states. Again, Oklahoma comes in near the middle - at 33.
Two factors kept Oklahoma out of low-rung territory: its debt per capita - 17th lowest in the nation - and low unemployment. Analysts applauded that "remarkably low" joblessness rate even as they were ranking Oklahoma the 10th poorest state in the nation, with a median household income of $43,225. The poverty level for a family of four in 2011 was $23,021.
Other rankings, including those posted by the Oklahoma Policy Institute, put Oklahoma's poverty rate at No. 17, based on U.S. Census Bureau.
Oklahoma has seen its poverty rate - 17.2 percent - inch up for several years. The rate of extreme poverty - less than half the federal poverty level - is 7.4 percent. More than 630,000 Oklahomans, one out of every six, lives in poverty. Poverty is even higher among children - 23 percent. Mississippi had the highest poverty rate at 22.6 percent compared to the national rate of 15.9 percent
"The low-median income suggests a need for higher paying jobs as Oklahoma relies heavily on agriculture production. Also, government and military employment, which tend to be low-paying jobs, account for the highest percentage of jobs in the state," 24/7 analysts said.
They pointed to the surging energy industry as perhaps the most promising candidate to increase Oklahoma's median income. That industry helped build this state. But most Oklahomans realize the cyclical nature of that industry, the dangers of over-reliance on energy income and the need for the Oklahoma economy to diversify even more.
Nationwide, and here in Oklahoma, the earnings gap between rich and poor households has grown in the aftermath of the recession. As long as that remains the case Oklahoma will continue to run in the back of the pack.
Original Print Headline: Is there a way out?
Julie DelCour 918-581-8379
Poverty has been with Oklahoma since statehood and intensified during the Great Depression when families such as the one above often lived in desperate conditions. Today, the poverty rate is 17.2 percent. DOROTHEA LANGE