POSTED ON SEPTEMBER 5, 2007:
Good things seem to be happening everywhere but here
Numbers show that the nation's income rate dropped, but Oklahoma's median income is almost $10,000 below the nations.
The good news is, according to a brand-spanking-new U.S. Census Bureau report, poverty is down and income is up across the United States.
The bad news is that the same isn't true for Oklahoma.
Just how bad that news is, though, depends greatly upon one's interpretation.
David Blatt, spokesman for the Tulsa-based anti-poverty agency Community Action Project, interprets the news as particularly grave.
"These numbers should sound the alarm that our economy, while continuing to show signs of overall strength, is leaving far too many Oklahomans behind," he said in response to the Census Bureau's Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United States: 2006 report.
The alarm-sounding numbers show that the nation's income rose for the second consecutive year and its poverty rate dropped for the first time this decade, while Oklahoma's median income is almost $10,000 below the nation's with a poverty rate taking what Blatt called a "sharp increase."
The country's real median household income rose from $46,326 to $48,000 between 2005 and 2006 while Oklahoma's rose from $37,063 to $38,770, the feds report.
"That's about 20 percent below the national median household income," lamented the CAP spokesman, who pointed out that, with adjustments for inflation, the increase in Oklahoma amounts to a "statistically insignificant" increase of only $395.
It bears pointing out, though, that with the same adjustments for inflation, the national increase was an even-less-statistically-significant $355.
The edge is also blunted somewhat by the fact that the comparison doesn't take Oklahoma's comparatively low cost of living into consideration.
That omission "does suggest some caution in measuring Oklahoma against other states," Blatt said.
Also according to the report, the nation's poverty rate declined from 12.6 percent to 12.3 percent, while Oklahoma's increased 2.2 percent to 15.4 percent of Oklahomans living in poverty.
"This translates to 537,000 Oklahomans in poverty in 2006--which was $20,000 for a family of four--up from 406,500 in 2005," Blatt said.
"We hope that these new numbers will encourage state policymakers to ask some tough questions about why families are failing to earn a decent living and will lead to an aggressive effort to bolster assistance and expand opportunities for low- and moderate-income families," he added.
When asked what those "tough questions" should be, Blatt told UTW, "The priority question is, why are so many Oklahoma families being left behind, struggling to earn enough to meet their basic needs? What are the right strategies to address the problem?"
One approach he offered for consideration, though, is to address the large number of uninsured in the state.
"Being without health insurance leaves families one medical emergency away from falling into poverty," he said.
The Census Bureau also reported that 18.7 percent of Oklahomans--an average of 670,000 per year--were without health insurance from 2004 to 2006.
It was a slight improvement over 2003-2005's 19 percent uninsured rate, but Blatt pointed out that it still leaves Oklahoma with the 6th highest rate of uninsured in the nation.
Nationally, the rate for 2006 was 15.8 percent, which was an increase from 15.3 percent in 2005.
"It is now especially urgent that the President and Congress find a way to reach an agreement on expanding the State Children's Health Insurance Program (S-CHIP) to avoid even more children being left without access to health care," said Blatt.
In response to the CAP spokesman's "tough questions," some Oklahoma policymakers disagreed with some of the nuts and bolts of Blatt's recommended approach, while others disagree with the philosophy behind it.
"It sounds to me like he's saying we need more government assistance and interference," said Owasso's Republican state Sen. Randy Brogdon.
"The best thing to do is to get government off our backs and out of our pockets," he said, noting that the best way to stimulate the economy and improve Oklahomans' personal income levels is to lighten their tax burden.
"It's a tried and true rule that you tax less what you want more of," explained Brogdon, who noted that the inverse is also true.
"If you don't want people to smoke, you tax cigarettes; if you want them to have more money, you tax their income less," he said.
His colleague from across the aisle--Tulsa's Democratic state Sen. Tom Adelson--couldn't disagree more.
Siding philosophically with Blatt, he said states that "invest in human capital" by providing more services to citizens tend to fare better economically.
"States with the highest tax burden have the highest per capita income," said Adelson.
"We ought to have basic primary goods and services available for everyone, regardless of their ability to pay for it," he said.
Adelson disagreed that Blatt's call for an expansion of S-CHIP is the right approach, though.
"I'm not sure he's right about that for Oklahoma," he said.
Adelson said the "All Kids Act"--passed in the latest session and authored by himself and Grove's Republican Rep. Doug Cox, will already expand health care access to children in the state.
Rather, the Tulsa Democrat said emphasis should be on education, noting a "strong correlation" between educational achievement in a state and higher per capita income.
In contrast to Blatt activating the alarm siren, Adelson also had a somewhat cooler response to the Census Bureau's report.
He said some of the Legislature's recent accomplishments, such as his All Kids Act and increasing the standard income tax deduction to the federal level, will help Oklahoma's economy in the years to come.
"Significant changes will happen gradually and over time, and that happens by increasing investment in human capital," the lawmaker said.
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