On Tuesday evening, Together Oklahoma hosted a discussion on working Oklahomans and potential policies the state legislature could enact to help improve their quality of life. During the discussion Together Oklahoma Chapter Lead Roxanne Logan asked three questions to the evening’s panelists: Laura Eastes Akers, executive director of The Grace Center of Southern Oklahoma, Elizabeth Gaylor, literacy and outreach librarian at Ardmore Public Library, and Bobby Upshaw, director of adult and alternative education for Ardmore City Schools. Each panelist then answered the questions based on their area of expertise.
The event began with Courtney Cullison, economic opportunity policy analyst at the Oklahoma Policy Institute, providing some background information about Oklahoma workers.
“Oklahoma is overall a pretty low wage state, and working people here take home less money than working people in other states, generally speaking,” Cullison said. “We also know that low income people pay a lot of taxes in Oklahoma. This is a high tax state if you’re a low income person.”
Cullison said families taking home less than $20,000 per year spend roughly 13.2% of their income on taxes. Sales tax makes up a large portion of this percentage, but income tax is also included in this figure. She believes reinstating the Earned Income Tax Credit on Oklahoma tax returns would be a great benefit to these families.
She said the EITC began at the federal level as a way to help low to moderate income working families. The amount of the credit varies based on factors such as income and the number of children in the home. The state of Oklahoma enacted its own version of the EITC in 2000, and recipients are able to claim 5% of their federal EITC on their Oklahoma tax returns.
As of 2016 the Oklahoma EITC is no longer refundable. It can be applied to any taxes owed to the state, but if the credit is larger than the amount owed, workers are not able to get that money back.
“When credits are not refundable that means people are not getting that money back to spend on what they need,” Cullison said. “The first year it was non refundable the average family lost $121. If we look just at Carter County we know that about 3,200 families were negatively impacted by that 2016 cut. That’s a big loss for those families and it’s also a big loss to your local economy.”
After Cullison spoke, one of the questions asked of the panelists was: what policy changes would you like to see enacted to support low income working Oklahomans?
Akers said she would like to see more affordable housing and public transportation options.
“We’re fortunate to have some public housing apartments, but there doesn’t seem to be enough for what the need is,” Akers said. “If there were some strategic partnerships — possibly with the City of Ardmore, the State of Oklahoma and with federal government —that could bring more availability to our area.”
Akers pointed out that while the community is fortunate to have the SORTS service available, their hours of operation are limited, and sometimes people can get stranded without a ride. She believes creating new strategic partnerships in this area would substantially help the working poor.
Upshaw pointed out that education is the key to creating successful lives, and he urged communities to hold schools accountable if they are not properly educating their students.
“When our schools perform poorly you need to ask why,” Upshaw said. “You need to demand better. Because where you see poverty, where you see crime, where you see these issues, you typically see poor performing schools.”