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Prosperity problems

Economic rankings show Oklahoma falling further behind

There are quite a few reasons to be optimistic about Oklahoma this year. Unemployment is low and the state expects to have its first budget surplus in quite some time. But despite this good news, too many Oklahomans still struggle to make ends meet and build a better future for themselves and their families. For the third straight year, Oklahoma has dropped in the Prosperity Now Scorecard rankings. We now rank 43rd in the nation for financial health and overall well-being of our residents—down from 34th in 2016.

The Scorecard shows Oklahomans are struggling in several areas related to financial security. On businesses and jobs, we have a mixed record. Our unemployment rate is lower than the national rate, and nearly half of private employers in the state offer health insurance. But the percentage of jobs in Oklahoma classified as “low-wage”—more than one in four—outpaces the national rate, indicating that many Oklahomans are working hard for paychecks that are too small to meet their basic needs.

Many Oklahomans are just one minor emergency away from financial disaster. More than one-third of Oklahoma households do not have a savings account, and only three in five Oklahomans have access to revolving credit they could use to cope with an unexpected expense. As a state, we rank in the bottom 10 in nine of the 15 measurements of financial health.

Oklahoma struggles most for healthcare, with a rank in the bottom 10 states on all six measures in the Scorecard. Our uninsured rate (16.6 percent) is the second-highest in the nation, and nearly one in 10 Oklahoma children do not have health insurance. In turn, one in six of us report forgoing a visit to the doctor because of the cost.

This year, the Scorecard added a new measure: racial disparity, which measures the gaps in outcomes between white residents and residents of color. As a state, Oklahoma ranks eighth in this new category. This means that we have comparatively small gaps in the well-being of white Oklahomans and Oklahomans of color. But that doesn’t mean that we’re all doing equally well. In Oklahoma’s case, it means that a lot of white Oklahomans (especially in rural Oklahoma) are struggling just as much as Oklahomans of color—we’re all finding it difficult to make ends meet.

These rankings tell us that Oklahoma does face significant challenges. But the good news is that we have good policy solutions that could address these issues.

The Earned Income Tax Credit has a proven history of helping to lift working families out of poverty. But for families to receive the full benefits of this credit, it must be refundable—families must be able to claim the credit even if the amount exceeds their income tax liability. That’s why it’s important that legislators restore the refundability of our state EITC.

Oklahomans use payday loans at a higher rate than residents of any other state, and these predatory loans trap working families in a cycle of debt that can be nearly impossible to escape. Oklahoma needs stronger policies to protect our people from predatory lenders.

For too many Oklahomans, a lack of access to health care puts them at risk of debilitating illness and massive debt. We could ensure all Oklahomans have access to affordable, quality health care by accepting federal funds to expand Medicaid.

With these solutions, we can set Oklahoma on a path to a more prosperous future.

Courtney Cullison is an economic opportunity policy analyst for Oklahoma Policy Institute.

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