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Expert offers solutions to cure Oklahoma's poverty ills

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- Dispelling myths is the first step in the long process of eradicating poverty from Oklahoma, a former Oklahoma State University sociology professor said Thursday at the State Capitol.

Oklahoma is the eighth poorest state in the nation and has ranked among the poorest states since the 1950s when poverty statistics were first recorded, said Lee Maril, chair and professor of sociology at the University of Texas-Pan American.

Poverty is not a problem confined to one area of Oklahoma, he said.

"Poverty is alive and well in the state and it is spatially distributed," he said.

There are more poor people in Oklahoma City and Tulsa than anywhere else in the state, he said. Less than one mile from the Capitol, between Robinson and Walker avenues, is one of the poorest areas in the state, he said.

The myth that poor Oklahomans are that way because they are lazy is not true, he said.

"They're not, they are very hard working," Maril said.

Another myth that is untrue is the link between poverty and welfare.

"The majority of poor people in the state of Oklahoma are not on welfare," he said. "They don't want a handout."

The reason they are still poor even though they are working brings up two more points in the debate.

Compared to other states, Oklahoma workers aren't paid as much, he said. Also, the cost of living in Oklahoma isn't as cheap as many people think, he said.

Workers in Oklahoma are paid 80 percent of what workers nationally are paid.

"We don't pay poor people in our state an honest wage," he said. "A minimum wage job is a poverty wage."

Most poor Oklahomans are minimum wage workers, he said. Some families he observed worked two and three jobs to compensate for
the low pay.

The state is only continuing the cycle of poverty by attracting industries that pay only minimum wage, he said. He specifically cited the food processing and agriculture industry.

"We don't need industries brought to the state that actually create poverty because they pay the workers minimum wage," he said.

The cost of living in Oklahoma isn't dramatically lower compared to other states, he said. The only area in which Oklahoman's get a price break is in housing for the middle- and upper-class, he said.

Maril offered some solutions to solve the poverty problem.

Poor Oklahomans need to organize and make themselves known politically, he said.

The state's health care agencies should practice prevention, he said. The benefits of preventive health care programs far outweigh
the costs.

The attitudes of several state agencies must change, he said. "We need to stop the turf war between the agencies," Maril said.

He said some agencies politically position themselves to receive more money than other agencies, seeing other agencies as enemies
that may take away from their funding.

Maril also said Oklahoma is spreading itself too thin. Resources should be concentrated on the areas that need it.

"Let's put the dollar where the poverty really is," he said.

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