McAlester News-Capital, McAlester, OK

State House

December 20, 2010

Many counties seeing increasing poverty levels

OKLAHOMA CITY — By Trevor Brown

CNHI Capital Bureau

OKLAHOMA CITY – Few Oklahoma counties saw an uptick in the number of people climbing above the poverty line in recent years, according to new information released by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Latimer, Marshall and Roger Mills are the only three counties in the state to see a statistically significant increase in the percent of their population living above the poverty line during an average time between 2005 and 2009 compared to 2000. The 74 other counties either experienced an increase in the percent of their population living below the poverty line or an increase or decrease that is statistically insignificant because of the survey's margin of error.

The data is from the newly released 2005-2009 American Community Survey. The Census Bureau files annual estimates for large cities and regions, but this is the first look into communities with populations of less than 65,000 since the 2000 Census. The information relies on estimates and sample surveys unlike the official decennial Census.

Tom Lewis, executive director of the Project Osiyo homeless shelter in Cherokee County, said the early data reinforces the worsening poverty picture that he sees everyday. Cherokee County is in northeastern Oklahoma and its county seat is Tahlequah.

Lewis said the type of people he serves at the homeless shelter has changed since it first opened in 2003. In recent years, he said, more educated and skilled laborers are finding themselves in poverty and in need of assistance.

“It is crushing to see the problem that is going on here,” he said. “Groups like us and churches try to take care of their congregation, but the recession just really hit Cherokee County so rough. We got entire families now going hungry.”

With 26.8 percent of its population living below the poverty line, Cherokee County recorded the third-highest rate in the state. Only McCurtain and Harmon counties saw higher poverty rates.

Most of the highest jumps in the poverty rate occurred in the northern and eastern parts of the state. Pawnee County recorded the largest increase as its rate climbed to 18.7 percent from 13 percent. Craig, Nowata, McIntosh and Payne counties – which all recorded new rates of 19.1 percent or more – rounded out the top five of the largest increases in the state.

The Census Bureau sets the poverty threshold at annual earnings of about $11,000 in pretax cash income for an individual.

The release of the data last week follows an announcement from the Oklahoma Department of Human Services that an all-time high of 613,914 Oklahomans were on the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program in November. Low-income households are eligible for the federally funded food stamp service.

The effects of the recession and the lingering high unemployment rate can be seen all over the state, said Angie Gaines, marketing manager of the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma. Gaines said distribution from the food bank increased 28 percent in the last fiscal year, and it is expected to continue to rise.

“One in seven Oklahomans struggle with hunger,” she said. “We have people that have to choose between electricity or food.”

The poverty news could worsen when the official 2010 Census information is released next year; premilinary reports are due out as early as today.

The American Community Survey includes data from several years before the worst of the economic downturn set in during 2008. Because of that, Lewis said he expects the poverty rate to be more severe when the government reveals the most current figures.

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