· Family structure: Two-parent households are much more financially secure than single-parent families. The poverty rate for Oklahomans in single-parent households headed by females is 37 percent. In married-couple families, it’s 9 percent.
· Education: People with less education are far more likely to be poor. The official poverty rate is 28 percent for adults over 25 who didn’t finish high school, 15 percent for those who stopped with a high school diploma, and 5 percent for those who completed college.
· Race and ethnicity: The poverty rate remains much higher for African-Americans — 30 percent — but Oklahoma’s rapidly-expanding Hispanic population is not far behind at 29 percent. The poverty rate is 23 percent for Native Americans. Although the rate for non-Hispanic whites is comparatively low — 13 percent — the population of poor whites outnumbers all the other groups combined, at 336,400.
Census Bureau analysts say their official poverty figures actually understate the gains made over the last five decades because they don’t take into account the value of non-cash assistance such as food stamps and housing subsidies.
Government programs have helped keep poverty in check, according to Census Bureau researchers. But they are fighting against several big fundamental trends putting upward pressure on the poverty rate.
Among them: The globalization of the labor market has reduced pay rates for unskilled work, making it more difficult to earn a living wage. Meanwhile, the declining percentage of two-parent families has pushed many families below the poverty line.
“God bless the single moms with two or three kids who are trying to make it happen on a minimum-wage job,” said former Oklahoma House Speaker Kris Steele, who now heads the Education and Employment Ministry in Oklahoma City. “It becomes very, very difficult.”
Advocates for the poor and poor people themselves say it’s unrealistic to expect government programs to eliminate poverty in Oklahoma, or America for that matter.