Down & out
Oklahoma’s economy is leaving too many behind
You’ve probably heard recently that Oklahoma’s economy is strong again, and that’s partially true. There are reasons to be optimistic about our economy. State revenues are up, thanks in part to the Legislature’s efforts last year to address our structural budget deficit, and unemployment is below 4 percent again.
These are signs of progress, but they don’t tell the complete story of Oklahoma’s economy. Too many Oklahomans are still struggling despite statewide progress. Some parts of Oklahoma still have high unemployment rates, the percentage of our adult population participating in the workforce is decreasing, and job creation in Oklahoma hasn’t kept pace with our population growth.
Despite low statewide unemployment, it is especially important to note that some parts of Oklahoma are still seeing comparatively high unemployment. Nineteen counties, primarily in rural southeastern Oklahoma, still have unemployment above the state average. These high unemployment counties also have lower educational attainment and higher poverty rates than the state as a whole, which makes finding a good job much more challenging in these places.
In addition, there are also certain populations that face higher barriers to employment. Job seekers of color still face racial discrimination in hiring, justice-involved individuals are passed over for many jobs because they have a criminal record, and low-income individuals with a poor credit history are often denied employment because of the false assumption that good credit is an indicator of trustworthiness or professional character.
Looking beyond unemployment, Oklahoma’s labor force participation rate, like the national rate, is declining and has been for nearly two decades. A smaller percentage of our population is working or looking for work, and this could be problematic. It’s likely that about half of this decline is due to the natural cycle of older workers retiring.
However, more than 40 percent of adult Oklahomans not in the labor force in 2018 were neither retired nor college-aged, according to 2018 Current Population Survey data. These individuals are out of the labor force for various reasons—they may be disabled, have a chronic illness, struggle with substance abuse, or have taken on caregiving responsibilities. Good public policies like paid family leave, affordable health care, and more education and training opportunities could have prevented some of these individuals from leaving the workforce. Oklahomans must work to make these policies a reality.
When people do re-enter the labor force, we need to make sure there are jobs available for them, and Oklahoma has some ground to make up here. Oklahoma has a jobs deficit—the state has not created enough new jobs to replace all those lost during the Great Recession and to keep up with population growth. Oklahoma has created more than 97,000 jobs in the state since December 2007, but the state still needs 82,900 more to keep pace with our population growth.
In short, we’re not all doin’ fine. Too many Oklahomans are still struggling with joblessness. Low statewide unemployment doesn’t mean that jobs are easy to come by for all Oklahomans, and we must look beyond our statewide unemployment rate to see these struggling Oklahomans.
Courtney Cullison is an economic security policy analyst with the Oklahoma Policy Institute.