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January 12, 2014

Poverty level decreases, but worrisome trends continue

NORMAN — 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 50 years ago, when the average was closer to one in three.

Much of the progress came during the decade following President Lyndon Johnson’s Jan. 8, 1964, promise to wage an “unconditional” war on poverty. Congress followed up 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.

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