Environment, Education, Energy: Policy to People

For One of Oklahoma’s Poorest Counties, No Easy Way Out of Poverty

Logan Layden / NPR StateImpact

Ty Thomas and Christian Life Outreach Pastor Carolyn Hicks. Thomas is a young minister at the church that provides food, shelter and other services to the poor.

For Oklahomans under the age of 18, the hardest place to grow up is in Choctaw County. The area reflects the latest U.S. Census numbers showing poverty on the increase in many rural areas across the country.

The situation is especially bad for Choctaw County’s young people, who suffer under a poverty rate of almost 40 percent, the highest in the state.

About 20 area citizens gather at the Christian Life Outreach Church in Hugo. They’ve been told a reporter is coming and are anxious to tell why their area is so poor.

“Just the family unit as a whole, I think, is where the breakdown is…There’s not a lot of work opportunity here…Teen pregnancy leads to parents sometimes not being well educated, not being taught how, you know, you have to get out here and make your own money to make it in life… Why am I going to work when I can draw this check? …The mother spends the money on drugs, and then she doesn’t care where the kid is after three o’clock.”

The situation is desperate in Choctaw County, where four live in poverty out of every 10 residents under age 18.

Other stats tell more of the story. 37-percent of children are from single-parent families. 70-percent are on Medicaid. 30 percent of the total population receives food stamps and more than 80 percent of children qualify for free or reduced school lunches.

Unemployment is right around the state average, but most of the jobs are low paying. The median household income is about 29-thousand dollars.

“I’ve been trying to make it on my own, and there’s been several times that I’ve been without food. I didn’t have a home.”

-21-year-old Ty Thomas on being young and poor in rural Southeast Oklahoma

“I just graduated three years ago,” said Ty Thomas, a 21-year-old who mentors young people at the Outreach Church. “I’ve been trying to make it on my own, and there’s been several times that I’ve been without food. I didn’t have a home. I didn’t have a lot of things, and I didn’t know how to go get it for myself. I was just out on my own. I didn’t have nobody, just my brothers and sisters at church, and that’s all I had.”

While he’s working to help other youths, he sees the cycle of poverty continuing among his former classmates.

“Most of the kids I went to school with, and I only had nine in my graduating class, I know one that went on to school,” Thomas said. “The rest of them are living with friends and parents and drinking and partying still.”

That’s another problem. Many young people in better circumstances simply leave the area. It’s part of the reason Choctaw County’s population decreased by about a percentage point over the last ten years. In that same time, the state’s population increased by almost nine-percent.

From the breakdown of the family and overreliance on state aid, to the lack of high paying local jobs, ask 20 different people why so many Choctaw County youths are impoverished and unmotivated and you’ll get at least 20 different answers. But they’ll likely all agree that efforts toward positive change must be directed at children.

Logan Layden / NPR StateImpact

Little Dixie Community Action Agency Associate Director Jay Weatherford goes over some of Choctaw County's disturbing youth poverty statistics.

That’s the philosophy of Jay Weatherford, Associate Director of the Little Dixie Community Action Agency.

“It’s a huge problem. It’s more than we have money for. It’s more than anybody’s going to have money for,” Weatherford said. “So, where do you start? Well, one of the biggest investments we’ve been making is into early childhood. We’re going to start when they’re little bitty.”

Little Dixie helps direct funding for a variety of programs to where it’s needed. It supports literacy and early education programs, and helps people get low interest loans to build houses. Weatherford says the organization stepped-up its efforts over the last five years, and are seeing signs of some slight improvements.

But for Little Dixie and similar organizations, the task can seem unachievable. The fiscal crisis hasn’t helped, with cuts to community block grants and funding for Little Dixie’s Head Start program dropping from just over 100-thousand dollars per year before the downturn, to around 78-thousand now. Still…they are trying.


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  • Rustneversleeps7

    Good story. Reasons to keep your doors locked and not letting your guard down. You have to be careful on what you say to someone with nothing to loose.

    • Cody

      Graduated in 2000 from HHS, and I make 100 grand a year in Baton Rouge,la. I would still be at 25k a year in hugo.

  • Ktrent7777

    Wow. I love that Community Action Agency, and the Church, are mentioned as trying to find solutions. But the word unmotivated is telling. Sometimes people have to hit rock bottom before they are willing to take advantage of the opportunities that others are trying to feed them. It’s sad that’s where were at, but an empty tummy goes a long way toward motivation. Life can be so harsh. But what else can be done? So glad Early Education is recognized as a solution.

  • Mamajpatterson

    It takes two people just to barely get by these days..i just have recently been divorced living at one time a 2800 a month income and now 750 month income..no extra money for daycare, so i stay at home..and struggle weekly to make sure i have food on the table. Im 36 yrs.old with a highschool diploma( it doesnt guarantee me a job) and even with minimum wage job..i would loose my child’s benefits..like vision and dental (which she needs) if i did go back full time. And I live in Pushmataha County..so its just bad wherever you are!

  • Ggdm Gjnh

    It’s very sad, but very true it seems like most people in the town are selfish and only wish to see a select few do good. I grow up in Choctaw County not ashamed of where I come from, but very dissatisfied with how everybody in the world can see the suffering and not do anything about it just choose to ignore the issues and talk bad about the younger generation, but leave them no choice or other options, but to sale drugs, prostitute and many other things to make there way throughout life. I don’t even wanna get on Hugo High School now that’s a sad case for real. School is a place to learn not a place to where you have to regret going to everyday. I personal feel like being from Hugo, Ok Choctaw County has made me strong and if giving the chance to make some real money one day I would love to come back in make dream after dream come true to many no and not enough yes in the county. My dream is to send as many people to school.a

  • Former hometown

    I graduated from HS in the late 1950s. When I was growing up Hugo was a vibrant community and remained so until the mentality of “Is that business right for our town” began. I realize that some industries become obsolete however hew industries come into existence. I can account for over 800 net jobs lost in a town with around 5000 or so. No community can survive that kind of loss. My class had 97 graduates (if memory survives me correct) and about 90% have at least a BS or higher and about the same number left and live elsewhere now. How can a community thrive when the brightest and best abandon you and have no interest in helping. Remember, everyone has what is in it for me and Hugo and Choctaw county have failed to answer that question. The answer to that question is absolutely essential if you expect people to remain. That means jobs that compete with other areas in pay and benefits. Services that equal other areas. I am one of those who left and have no regrets.

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