Oklahoma Leads In Charitable Giving But Ranks Number One In Hungry Families

“Then I’ll be around’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where—wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there.” Tom Joad in The Grapes of Wrath

It has long been an established part of Oklahoma mythology that the state residents are caring, generous people who give to charities far above the national average.

The Generosity Index, an annual state-by-state ranking of charitable giving, often ranks Oklahoma in the top five states. The index validates our “caring, giving” mythology. It tells the nation we are decent and kind folks who look after one another.

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So at first glance it is perplexing that our caring, giving state is ranked number one in terms of hungry families in the nation, according to a recent U.S. Census Bureau survey.

What do we make of the fact that from 2002 to 2004, more than one in 20 households or 236,000 Oklahomans went hungry at times? What do we make of the fact that many of these hungry people have jobs?

Does the hunger report show the state’s mythology a fiction? If we give so much in charity, then why are so many people hungry?

One issue to consider is the Generosity Index itself. The index bases its results on not just what the state gives to charities but also on a “having rank,” which is tied to state income levels. Oklahoma is ranked 42 in “having” and eighth in “giving.” Thus we end up with a number four ranking overall. That sounds fair enough.

But some people have criticized the index for its methodology, which creates a national narrative that poorer southern states, such as Oklahoma or Mississippi, are more generous than “Yankee” states. Many see this as an untrue story, arguing that because of the index’s biases a relatively wealthy state such as Massachusetts could never move above Mississippi or Oklahoma in the rankings simply because of its high income levels and the other states low income levels.

The Generosity Index also includes all donations to religious organizations, and this could definitely skew the results for Oklahoma and other southern states with large church attendance and affiliations. The Generosity Index website includes this statement about its methodology, “In using this data, we accept the federal government's definitions of what charitable giving is, and that includes giving to religious groups, churches and many other institutions.” So perhaps we can speculate that a sizeable portion of the “charitable giving” in Oklahoma goes to new mega-church buildings, not feeding local hungry people.

The people who prepare the Generosity Index, created by the Catalogue for Philanthropy in 1997, argue their annual study was never meant to be a scientific study. It was merely meant as a way to create a discussion about giving to charity.

In other words, it means nothing in real terms. But it probably does more harm than good in places such as Oklahoma. It is harmful because the caring mythology, validated by the Generosity Index, allows some state leaders and individuals to feel comfortable the state is doing the best it can in helping the less fortunate.

It creates a Oklahoma story that goes something like this, “The state leads the nation in hunger and in other categories such as children without health insurance, but, on the other hand, it is a nurturing, caring place to live. People can find help here if they want it. So I’m excused from really looking into the issue and making informed decisions.”

Consequently, Oklahoma has some of the highest rates of hunger and lack of health care for the less fortunate in the nation at the same time it can pat itself on the back that it is a caring, giving state. The Generosity Index gives some Oklahomans a copout, an excuse.

Around the time the hunger report came out, all the Republicans in our congressional delegation—Ernest Istook, Tom Cole, Frank Lucas, John Sullivan—voted to cut the country’s food stamp program. This was a heartless, immoral voted that could create even more hunger in Oklahoma. Essentially, they voted to deny food stamps to people in a state with the most hungry households.

But their immoral votes hurt us all here in Oklahoma. You do not need to read the latest study to know that hunger and its associated problems such as poverty and lack of health insurance among Oklahoma children lead to larger social problems and issues. All of us end up paying in the long run through funding social programs and prisons, and paying increasing health care costs.

To compound the problem, state Republican politicians are now pushing new tax legislation, ironically named the Taxpayers Bill of Rights (TABOR) amendment that, if enacted, would lead to even more cuts in social programs for the poor.

And, “Oklahoma: We rank number one in hunger!” is surely not a good business recruitment slogan for the state, is it?

So do you want to lower the hunger rate in Oklahoma?

My suggestion for charitable giving this holiday season is this: Oklahomans should devote more time to understanding the real costs of a Republican ideology that privileges the ultra-rich over ordinary, hard-working people. Many of those who go hungry in Oklahoma work two or three jobs, according to news reports. These are decent, hard-working people who cannot adequately feed their children. .

So maybe Oklahomans give more in charity on a percentage basis than a lot of other states and maybe this “percentage” just simply is not enough to feed our hungry neighbors. Who knows?

One thing is sure, however, and that is the state’s residents have sent too many worthless politicians like Istook, Cole, Lucas, and Sullivan and U.S. Senators Tom Coburn and Jim Inhofe to Washington recently who do not care about the state’s people and issues. Voters also recently gave the Republicans a majority in the Oklahoma House of Representatives for the first time in years. I think it is fair to say the Republicans—either in Washington or here in the state—will not make the Oklahoma hunger issue a part of their legislative agenda.

Republican politicians sway many voters through divisive cultural wedge issues, but Oklahoma leads the nation in hunger and they will not lift one finger to help. They rail against the non-existent issue of gay marriage here, but they do nothing to help the state’s hungry children.