Nearly one in four Oklahoma families with children younger than 18 were on some type of public assistance in 2008, according to newly released census estimates. Public assistance includes food stamps and supplemental Social Security income. Food stamp use is at an all-time high in the state. The use of the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program increased to almost 492,000 people in June 2009. The state Department of Human Services said that is up nearly 18.6 percent compared with the same time last year. "Food stamps are one of the leading indicators of economic distress,” said David Blatt, director of policy for the antipoverty Oklahoma Policy Institute. About 11 percent of the state’s households received some type of food stamp assistance last year, up from 10 percent in 2007 and 2.4 percent higher than the national average in 2008. The estimates come from the Census Bureau’s 2008 American Community Survey, which surveyed geographic areas with a population of more than 65,000. "As their income dwindles and other expenses rise, it’s the food budget that shows need,” Blatt said. The percentage of Oklahoma households with children younger than 18 that received public assistance was almost 24 percent in 2008, according to survey estimates. The national rate is 19.4 percent. Anne Roberts, executive director of the Oklahoma Institute of Child Advocacy, said one thing the numbers can’t tell is that even though many families receive this assistance, they often live in communities with few choices for buying healthy and wholesome foods. "The bottom line for small children is that their brains and bodies are growing. That’s why it’s so important we have these programs,” she said. Roberts said public assistance also alleviates stress on young children and their families. This can help children get out of the cycle of poverty and reach their full potential, she said. Among cities, one in four Oklahoma City and Tulsa households with children were on some type of public assistance. In Lawton, the rate was estimated at 22.9 percent. That was followed by Norman at 19.2 percent and Broken Arrow at 11.3 percent. The Census Bureau did not release estimates for Edmond in that category. "This is stressful on children and makes it harder for them to be at school, attentive and ready for success,” Blatt said. "So the problems of limited income have far reaching consequences throughout our society.”
Poverty levelsThe state’s poverty rate was unchanged since last year at about 15.9 percent, or 579,000 Oklahomans, but still remained higher than the national poverty rate of 13.2 percent last year. Poverty is defined as an income of $21,200 or less for a family of four. "I think the concern is that even at the end of a period of strong economic growth, one in six Oklahomans were living below the poverty level,” Blatt said. He said this shows some Oklahoma families were struggling to meet their basic needs before the recession.