Hiding in plain sight

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Tahlequah Daily Press
By: Josh Newton
May 11, 2010

TAHLEQUAH -- Take a look around. At any given moment, Cherokee County appears to have many things going for its future residents.
But while the scene may appear positive, a moment in time isn't indicative of what's really going on, said Jan Figart, a representative of the Tulsa Community Service Council. It seems locals have learned to hide poverty very well.

Last week, Figart joined leaders from area agencies in discussing early childhood indicators of Cherokee County through a community profile and needs assessment. She started by pointing out four important demographic trends, reflected locally and through the rest of Oklahoma.

"People are moving out of rural areas at a very high rate of speed," said Figart.

She said about 75 percent of the country's population lives in suburban or urban areas. When people lose their jobs, they often flock to those areas, such as Tulsa, to find work.

"It's going to get harder and harder to maintain your infrastructure [in Cherokee County]," said Figart.

She pointed out Oklahoma had 557 public school districts, but after only one year of recession, 27 were lost.

"Only the strong are going to survive," said Figart.

The county also has an aging population.

"We don't have a young group of babies coming up behind us," said Figart. "Our kids, and our grandkids, are not having children. That's very important, because it begs the question: Who's going to support me in my retirement?"

From 1980 to 2008, the population in Cherokee County increased from 30,684 to 45,733, around 49 percent. The state's population during that same time increased about 22 percent.

In Cherokee County, the number of children under the age of 5 increased only 1/10th of a percent, Figart said, from 6.8 percent of the population in '80 to 6.9 percent in 2008. The state's population of children under age 5 actually regressed from 7.7 percent in 1980 to 7 percent in 2008.

"It's becoming a retirement town," said Figart.

She said an aged population will result in a "bigger and bigger challenge to pass bond issues to support schools, or taxes to support families."

Cherokee County is also becoming more culturally diverse, with a rapidly expanding Hispanic population, she said.

The state will become minority-majority in the next five years, Figart said, and Cherokee County will lead the way.

"You are going to flip [to minority-majority] long before the rest of the state," said Figart.

She pointed out the large number of tribal citizens who call eastern Oklahoma home, and also the increase in those of Hispanic origin.

"There are a lot of misconceptions," said Figart. "Many people think most of them [Hispanics] are undocumented, and that's not true."

Family models have also changed. After World War II, men and women didn't live with Grandma and Grandpa anymore, because they were no longer "supporting the farm." Around 1954, the "nuclear family" became the predominant model. Now, that model is also changing.

"Married-couple households are disappearing," said Figart. "For many years, the only way women could survive was if they had a partner who could provide. Now, they have less reasons to create that marriage bond."

That's a problem, "because that's not the way [state and federal] services are set up," said Figart.

"We love the nuclear family, but we've got to get real here," she said.

Figart said the decline in economic opportunity and employment here, and in the rest of the state, was cultured by changes in jobs available to skilled workers.

"Many families in the 1970s and 1980s were affiliated with oil and aeronautic industries," said Figart. "These jobs allowed men and women who had not completed high school, or only completed high school, to get an entry-level position and 'work their way up.'"

Many times, those positions offered middle-class wages and health and retirement benefits. That trend declined through in the '90s, and created the new culture of people referred to as the "working poor."

"This class is often described as people who work one or more jobs to create full-time employment, but the wages are such that prevents them from improving their socio-economic status," said Figart.

Many jobs such as store clerk, fast-food service personnel, and lawn mowers are filled by people supplementing their incomes, leaving little room for the younger employee. Women here also earn only a fraction of what men make - about 70 cents on the dollar, said Figart.

She said over the next 40 years, "we will see a regression to the early 20th century income structure, with the difference being the amount of wealth centered in the highest income."

During that period, the "poor" made up 75 percent of the population, with the middle class accounting for 20 percent and the rich about 5 percent.

Figart said the 400 richest families in the U.S. hold 90 percent of the country's wealth. In America's history, when soldiers received benefits like free college, low- or no-cost mortgage loans, and free health care, "it created a lot of disposable income. They bought cars, TVs, radios, and that created the largest middle class in the history of the world."

Considering a three-person family of one adult and two children to be at 100 percent of the federal poverty level, the adult's annual income would be $18,310. But to meet the new self-sufficiency standard, the three-person family would need to make $31,176 per year.

Female-headed households' median income is only 60 percent of the male-headed households' median income. Only married-couple households with a potential two-income family are above the self-sufficiency standard, at $37,732 median income.

Figart said Cherokee County residents are "able to hide poverty very well" by spending money they get from social services to buy a middle-class look.

"These 'poor' parents are afraid their children will be stigmatized [for what they wear], so they spend more money on what you can see verses what they need," said Figart. "We like to hide poverty in Cherokee County and Oklahoma."

Poverty also leads to obesity, she said.

"Parents buy what keeps the kids quiet," said Figart. "If you're paying in food stamps, and a peach costs 62 cents, you're not going to buy very many. That's a one-time snack. Instead, you can buy brown beans and a box of Jiffy cornbread and feed a family of four, and keep them relatively happy most of the night."

These issues, she said, all lead to big problems for those who wish to address poverty issues and help keep children healthy.

Bridget Tobey, community coordinator for Smart Start Cherokee County, said the goal of the state entity established by the governor is to keep all children safe, healthy and eager to learn. The county must update its needs assessment every three years, and last week's presentation was the first step in the process.

Officials will now look into the resources available in the county, and will eventually seek input from the community. From there, they will develop a strategic plan to meet the needs of Cherokee County's children and families.

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