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Six-year-old book still paints accurate picture of Sooner State poverty

The Norman Transcript

Transcript Staff Writer

A book detailing poverty in Oklahoma -- and published more than six years ago -- is still an eerily accurate portrait of the state's economic condition, a consultant for the Oklahoma Institute for Child Advocacy (OICA) said Thursday.

Sandy Ingram, an international social policy consultant, said Robert Lee Maril's book, "Waltzing with the Ghost of Tom Joad," still provides "an incredibly accurate" account of poverty and low-wage labor in the Sooner state. The book, published by the OU Press, portrays the lives of poverty stricken residents and examines the myths surrounding poverty in Oklahoma.

Ingram, CEO of Oklahoma-based Ingram and Associates, did the data analysis for the OICA's 2005 Oklahoma Kids Count Factbook. That report, released last year, parallels Maril's work of five years earlier; both documents show the number of Oklahoma children in poverty increasing.

"When I read Dr. Maril's book I said to myself, 'yeah, that's what's going on here,'" Ingram said. "And I still believe that."

The sad fact is, she said, that Oklahoma's impoverished culture isn't going away any time soon. "We're developing a cultural of poverty. And it seems to me the gaps between the haves and the have-nots are getting even bigger."

According to Maril's book, the number of children living in poverty in 1970 stood at 34.2 percent. In 1990 that figure had jumped to 35.1 percent and those figures, Maril wrote, would get worse. "Poverty is, in short, not an exceptional phenomenon but unusually common to the state."

Last Tuesday, Maril was, again, proven right.

The 2006 Kids Count report -- released by Annie E. Casey Foundation -- ranked Oklahoma 40th nationally in the condition of children across the country and said more Oklahoma youngsters were living in poverty this year than in 2003.

Additionally, the report said, 34 percent of Oklahoma children lived in single parent families -- an increase of four percent since 2000.

Thirty-six percent of state youngsters were living in households were parents lacked full-time work -- an increase of three percent since 2000.

Maril -- a former Oklahoma State University sociology professor -- said he's not surprised by the Casey foundation's latest statistics.

"I won't say, 'I told you so,'" he said, "because the facts are so bleak. But, honestly, I'm not surprised. Oklahoma has been locked into a boom-bust economic cycle for decades and it doesn't look like it's getting any better."

Maril, now teaching at the East Carolina University, in Greenville, North Carolina, said low-wage labor and the on-going myth 'that wages are low here because the cost of living is low here' both conspire to keep thousands of Oklahomans at the bottom of the economic ladder.

"Low-wage labor is a major component of the Oklahoma's economy," he said. "And the fact that so many still live in poverty is no surprise at all."

Until there is a major political movement to raise wages, he said, Sooner state workers will continue to suffer economically. "Not long ago there was a political movement in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which forced an increase in the minimum wage. And the results there have been dramatic. If the same thing happened in Oklahoma it would cause major political change."

In March of this year, Raise Oklahoma -- a group seeking to increase the minimum wage here from $5.15 an hour to $6.15 per hour -- circulated an initiative petition calling for a statewide vote on the issue. Last week, the group announced they had failed to get the required number of signatures to place the issue to a vote.

Maril said the drive was great example of the fair wage movement. "It's just the first shot in a long fight," he said. "They'll be back."

Ingram agreed. She said the drive proved thousands of Oklahomans want a "decent" wage. "People want to be able to live a normal life. They want to reach that brass ring"

The drive's failure, she added, is an indication that organizations need large amounts of money and staff to make political change here. "Don't let anyone kid you. People support the issue. You just need the resources to pull it off."

While not as popular as "The DaVinci Code" or the latest installment of the Harry Potter series, the fact that Maril's five-year-old academic study is still listed for sale, and still being used, proves the book's staying power. "I am pleased that people are still reading it," Maril said. "I believe the issue continues to need study."

So much, in fact, that Maril said he is planning a follow-up work on poverty in Oklahoma in 2010. "I want to see if anything has changed since 2000."

Although Ingram, too, said she would like the see a change for the positive in the state's poverty rate, she doesn't believe that change will occur within the next four years.

"Dr. Maril's study will be interesting. We do have some initiatives that might yield results. Right now there is a big focus on early childhood education and the state is poised to make some heavy-duty investments, but they won't happen overnight. It may take until 2020 before we see positive results."

It took a long time to create the problem, she said, and "it will take a lot longer to get us out of it."