Follow the Lack of Money

Oklahoma is a poor state and always has been when compared to the rest of the United States. In 1960 it was estimated our poverty rate was 26%. By 1970, thanks partly to the federal War on Poverty, it had dropped to 18%. It went down even more during the oil boom, and yet by the mid 1990s, it was back up to 20%.

Sociologist Robert Maril has spent many years studying poverty. Formerly of Oklahoma State University, he is now chair and professor of sociology at the University of Texas, Pan American. His book is Waltzing with the Ghost of Tom Joad: Poverty, Myth, and Low Wage Labor in Oklahoma (University of Oklahoma Press, 2000, $29.95.)

Statistics are the dry and impersonal part of poverty. Prof. Maril resolved to present his poverty findings in their painful and human form instead by studying 12 different poor families in four Oklahoma locations. They are Oklahoma City, Tulsa, a small town in far southeastern Oklahoma, and another in the north central part of the state. He changed the names of these last two, but the one close to here appears to be either Pawnee or Pawhuska.

It's a great and effective technique for sociologists actually to go out and meet some real people. We're talking here about households with annual incomes of $5,000 or $10,000, likely with an old car in the yard that they can't afford to keep in running condition. It's probably sitting up on blocks. And we're talking about people who can't afford to go to the doctor when they're sick and really can't afford much of anything except a run-down house and a little food.

Now conservatives often will say, "Sure, there's poverty, but it's probably just temporary." Sometimes it is, but of all the families and individuals that Maril studied, only one couple was better off when he returned about three years later to check.

Of the 17 very poor counties out of the total of 77, all but two are in eastern Oklahoma. Of course, most of the poverty is in our two biggest cities since that's where most of the population is.

He calls Adair County (Stilwell) the poorest of all, but I'm not sure how he arrived at that assessment. The Oklahoma Almanac lists its per capita (1996) income as $14,603, and there are many counties with a comparable figure. Some are even lower. The two western Oklahoma counties that are very poor are Caddo (Anadarko) and Harmon (Hollis). Harmon County is located in the extreme southwestern part of the state, bordering the Texas panhandle. I've always wondered why it shows up frequently in studies of this kind as a poor county, but here's a clue which might reveal a lot about western Oklahoma in general. Again, according to the Oklahoma Almanac, in 1910, about three years before statehood, its population was over 11,000. Today it's under 4,000.

Maril does a good job of exposing some myths about poor people. A few are lazy, like some of the rest of humanity. But how can this be true of 650,000 individuals? Then he says that 35% of poor people in Oklahoma have full time jobs, and most surprising of all, over 60% are not receiving welfare of any kind.

So what would relieve poverty in Oklahoma? The usual answer is to go for economic development. Right now we are facing another right-to-work initiative here, which can't possibly do working people any good if a right-to-work law is enacted. Maril was speaking about his book on our public radio station in Stillwater recently. He emphasized that as we search for new industry and better pay scales, we need to be very careful. Hog farms haven't worked out very well. His conclusion is that "The overriding question is economic development should always be a simple one: Who benefits?" Isn't that a good question to ask about any new idea or project?

Contact Alvena Bieri, 2023 W. 11th Ave, Stillwater OK 74074 or email

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