Looking at one set of indicators, one sees an Oklahoma that’s not only surviving the national economic downturn, but even thriving: Unemployment is down, the housing market is relatively stable, the economy is benefiting from a strong oil and gas industry. Oklahoma City was even recently deemed “recession-proof” by Forbes magazine.
However, looking at a different set of indicators, one sees a much bleaker picture: growing poverty rates, an increasing number of people without food and a rise in bankruptcies and foreclosures.
“The benefits of the current period of prosperity are not being spread throughout the population,” said David Blatt, director of policy at the new Oklahoma Policy Institute think tank. “So we have this paradox of Oklahoma’s economy doing very well, but median income has basically been flat and poverty rates are rising.”
This creates a growing divide between the state’s wealthier populations and those already living at or below the poverty line.
“We’re almost rapidly becoming a two-class society with, if you will, the rich getting richer and the poor staying about the same,” said Jon Forman, the University of Oklahoma’s Alfred P. Murrah Professor of Law and author of “Making America Work.”
‘HUNGER IS NOT OK’
The gap between these two disparate groups is becoming more evident. Oklahomans never before seeking help have found themselves turning to public and private assistance just to provide the necessities for their families. Charities around the metro are reporting a dramatic increase in the number of people coming to them for assistance. And, for the most part, these are employed people with families who were already struggling, but can no longer keep up with factors like inflation and rising fuel costs.
“A great majority of our clients are what we call the ‘working poor.’ These are people with jobs, sometimes two jobs, and they still can’t get that dollar to stretch far enough,” said Heide Brandes of the Salvation Army Oklahoma City Command, which is seeing more people needing assistance with food and utility bills.
Damon Carter’s story mirrors many of those heard by local social service agencies. The former Michigan resident lost his car and house, and had a trouble finding a job that would support him, his wife and his three children. The family moved to Dallas, but work was scarce and transportation too expensive.
Carter and his wife started looking for a better place to start over.
“We were looking for a while, because the place we were living was just a real bad environment, and I couldn’t really bring the kids up like that, and I thought, ‘Anything is better than this,'” Carter said.
The family contacted the Salvation Army in Oklahoma City, which had one space at its Family Lodge. After two days in the city, things were already improving: Carter found a temporary job nearby, and the housing is more affordable than in places like Michigan or Dallas. Still, the transition has been difficult for the whole family, with changes in every aspect of their lives ” from family to friends to living conditions.
“Economically, financially, it’s just like a nightmare, and I don’t want to just sit somewhere and keep on declining, if I can go somewhere and have a better chance and more opportunities for me and my family,” Carter said.
REGIONAL FOOD BANK OF OKLAHOMA
At the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, executive director Rodney Bivens said the agencies he works with are reporting anywhere from a 20 percent to 50 percent increase in the number of people seeking help, compared with one to two years ago. These agencies are also seeing an increase in the number of working poor needing assistance, and Bivens said many people in this group don’t have luxury items they can eliminate to free up resources for rising fuel and food costs. Some can’t even afford the gas needed to drive to a food bank for help, so many agencies are sending volunteers to their homes to deliver food. However, many of those same volunteers can no longer afford to donate their time, Bivens said, especially since many of them are seniors living on fixed incomes.
As reflected in “Hunger is Not OK,” a report issued by the Oklahoma Task Force on Hunger, of which Bivens is vice-chair, many of the state’s poor must choose between necessities. The 2007 report states that, of the people served by Oklahoma’s food banks, 41 percent reported having to choose between buying food or paying for utilities, and 32 percent reported having to choose between buying food or paying their rent or mortgage.
In the last decade, according to the report, the number of Oklahomans classified by the United States Department of Agriculture as “food insecure” has risen from 13.1 percent to 14.6 percent and the number of Oklahomans experiencing “very low food security” has risen from 4.2 percent to 5.3 percent. This ranks the state as one of the worst five in the country for food security.
The increasing hunger rate affects the entire economy, according to a June 2007 report commissioned by the Sodexho Foundation. The report, done in collaboration with researchers at Harvard, Brandeis and Loyola universities, found that hunger is costing Oklahoma more than $1.4 billion each year through illness and decreased academic achievement.
Presbyterian Urban Mission in Oklahoma City is seeing between 100 and 200 more people coming in for help each month, said executive director Peggy Garrett. While many of them receive public assistance, such as food stamps, it just isn’t enough.
“The food stamps they get only last an average of two weeks, so they have that other half of the month that they have to decide what they’re going to do,” Garrett said.
‘JUST NORMAL PEOPLE’
People would probably be surprised at the socioeconomic backgrounds of individuals needing help, Brandes said. It’s not always those who are unemployed or homeless, it’s also “just normal people ” you and I, your neighbors ” who are falling on rougher and rougher times,” she said.
The Salvation Army also serves a growing number of grandparents raising grandchildren ” often on a Social Security check of around $500 a month and maybe $25 a week in food stamps, Brandes said.
Finding work isn’t always the answer, Forman said. In fact, there are financial disincentives to finding work, such as losing Medicaid. Even people who want to work sometimes can’t ” if, for example, they have a child but can’t afford day care and can’t find assistance paying for child care, Forman said.
The overall poor health of Oklahoma’s citizens is another major contributor to the poverty rates, with the state ranking 45th to 50th in most health indicators, Blatt said. If you’re in poor health, you may be unable to work on a regular basis, which contributes to even worse health, he said.
Not only can the state’s poor often not afford health care, they may not even be able to afford healthy foods, turning to lower-quality ” and cheaper ” foods to make their grocery dollars go further. Bivens pointed to a study conducted by researchers at the University of Washington, which compared prices for 370 foods sold at Seattle-area supermarkets. The study found that a 2,000-calorie diet consisting of junk food would cost $3.52 a day, whereas a 2,000-calorie diet consisting of healthier foods would cost $36.32. While these cheaper foods may help families keep their kitchens stocked, they’re also blamed for significant obesity rates and declining overall health, which then contribute to even more poverty.
‘ON THE BRINK’
Blatt said it’s important to remember low-income Oklahomans live in a different world than those whose economic situation is stable, or even improving.
“While Oklahoma has benefited from these record oil and gas prices, and there’s a segment of our population that is booming, we really do see a fairly substantial segment that is barely scraping by or, in many cases, not getting by at all,” Blatt said, adding that this leads to situations of economic and family crisis.
Blatt’s Oklahoma Policy Institute illustrates this divide in its May report “On the Brink.” In it, the nonprofit organization draws on figures from several agencies, including the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the U.S. Census Bureau. For example, according to “The State of Working Oklahoma,” a 2007 Community Action Project report, the median household income declined 4.1 percent between 2001 and 2005, yet incomes for those in the 99th percentile increased 22 percent. And, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Oklahoma’s poverty rate reached 15.4 percent for the two-year period of 2005 and 2006, up 2.2 percent from the previous two-year period ” the highest level in a decade. That rate includes one in five children under 18 living in poverty.
Bankruptcies are also on the rise. Even considering the stricter bankruptcy law that took effect in November 2005, bankruptcy filings are increasing ” up 23 percent for the first three months of 2008 when compared with the same period in 2007. With it, mortgage delinquency and foreclosures are also up. The number of mortgages in delinquency increased more than 50 percent from the third quarter of 2005 to the third quarter of 2007, according to the U.S. Congress Joint Economic Committee’s “Oklahoma Economic Snapshot.”
It is certainly a grim picture painted of the state of Oklahoma’s poor. However, Blatt said, helping low-income Oklahomans not only helps individuals and families, but also the entire state. Blatt sees promise in the welfare reforms of the mid-Nineties that signaled a shift from simply maintaining the welfare system to creating programs that address the needs of low-income people to become economically successful, whether that’s child care, health care or education. But, there’s still a significant segment of the population that faces obstacles to becoming self-sufficient, he added.
“We really need to be attentive to that population and be trying to develop public policies to make sure that prosperity is more evenly shared,” Blatt said. “That’s what’s necessary for the state as a whole to benefit.”
DONATIONS DOWN, COSTS UP
Local charities aren’t just dealing with a growing number of people living in poverty. They’re also facing rising operating costs and decreasing donations from people they used to depend on, but who are now struggling themselves.
“At a time when you actually need more donations, because the need is so much greater, your donors are feeling the pinch too, so they’re donating less,” said Heide Brandes of the Salvation Army Oklahoma City Command.
Her organization used to spend $1,000 for a week’s worth of food, but now spends $2,000 and is still “pushing it toward the end of the week,” she said.
Rodney Bivens, executive director of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma, said operating costs have increased across the board, with rising gas costs impacting pretty much everything else the bank purchases.
“It’s a ripple effect, and it drives up the cost of everything we do,” Bivens said.
Both Bivens and Peggy Garrett, executive director of Presbyterian Urban Mission, said this is the worst year they’ve seen financially, and both have been doing this over 20 years.
For example, in the last five years alone, the Regional Food Bank’s fuel costs have increased 150 percent, food costs have increased anywhere from 8 percent to 74 percent, and the plastic wrap it uses to send that food has increased 17 percent.
One of the food bank’s partner organizations is now serving 400 people a month, compared with 200 a month last year, and has reduced the food it gives to each family from three to two sacks, Bivens said. “Lea Terry