Family & Community

Ray Carter | December 22, 2021

Oklahoma population growth outpaces nation

Ray Carter

Newly released data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows population growth in Oklahoma outpaced most of the nation from July 2020 to July 2021, driven primarily by an influx of people moving to Oklahoma from other states.

That population surge coincided with the elimination of most COVID restrictions in Oklahoma even as mandates were maintained in other states. Gov. Kevin Stitt’s administration sees a strong correlation between Oklahoma’s growth and the governor’s focus on maximizing citizen freedom.

“There is nothing more powerful than voting with your feet and it’s no surprise that Americans are choosing Oklahoma thanks to Governor Stitt’s leadership to protect individual freedoms and keep Oklahoma open for business,” said Charlie Hannema, chief of communications for Stitt. “We are continuing to target companies in states with more oppressive regulations and Oklahoma is well-positioned to benefit from this national population shift.”

When he discussed the reopening process in May 2020, Stitt predicted Oklahoma could become a national leader.

“I want Oklahoma to be the first state in the nation to get its wings back and serve as an example of a community that works together, not against each other, a community that wins together, succeeds together, and thrives together,” Stitt said. “This is our moment to showcase Oklahoma’s courage and freedom to the nation.”

“People are tired of lockdowns and they’re tired of being told what they can do. ... My business has never been better from the standpoint of people coming here.” —Monty Strickland, Realtor

More than a year later, the state’s recovery appears evident in both economic figures and population data. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports Oklahoma had the third-lowest unemployment rate in the nation in October. The Oklahoma unemployment rate was 2.7 percent, the lowest such rate in the state since 1976 and a full point lower than surrounding states. The unemployment rate then declined to 2.5 percent in November.

Now new data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows Oklahoma ranked 16th-best out of the 50 states in population growth from July 2020 to July 2021, measured as percentage growth.

Oklahoma experienced 0.6 percent population growth over the year. The state added an estimated 24,608 people from July 2020 to July 2021. Of that total, 24,687 people were added through domestic migration from other states while 1,523 were added from international migration. That influx offset a slight decline in the native population as the number of deaths slightly outpaced the number of births.

In the immediate region, only Texas experienced better growth. Otherwise, Oklahoma fared much better than all other states that border it. Aside from Texas, net domestic migration to Oklahoma was at least 54 percent greater than what occurred in all other bordering states. The net number of people who moved to Oklahoma from other states (24,687) was almost as much as the net number of domestic migrants in Colorado and Missouri combined.

Nationally, the only states achieving a larger rate of growth than Oklahoma were Arizona, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, Maine, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, and Utah.

In contrast, a significant number of states experienced population decline: California, Hawaii, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Rhode Island, and West Virginia.

The remaining states all had population growth between 0.01 percent and 0.5 percent.

That many people are relocating to Oklahoma defies the predictions of some critics who claim Oklahoma’s conservative political environment drives away more people than it attracts. Such views were espoused earlier this year by participants on a June panel hosted by the Oklahoma Conference of Churches titled, “Is America a ‘Fundamentally Racist Nation’? A Faith Perspective.”

Much of that panel’s focus was on enactment of House Bill 1775, which banned Oklahoma’s K-12 schools from teaching several concepts broadly associated with Critical Race Theory, including that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex” and that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist, or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously.”

“Everybody around us looks down on this state,” said Lawrence Ware, a teaching assistant professor and diversity liaison in the Department of Philosophy at Oklahoma State University. “And they look down on this state because of these kinds of laws. Many, many friends of mine refuse to come back to this state. Many, many people who are not from this state don’t want to come here.”

“There are so many people that I have contact with that are like, ‘I’m leaving Oklahoma. I’m getting out of here. It’s not safe for me here. I can’t be there,’” said Shannon Fleck, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches. “And I do not blame them.”

She added that “the future of Oklahoma is literally leaving the borders of Oklahoma because of the laws that are being passed.”

But those who interact directly with individuals now moving to Oklahoma say the state’s political climate is part of the draw for new residents, not only in terms of COVID restrictions but also regarding broader policy debates.

“I’ve been in real estate for 20 years now, and the last two years I’ve seen more people contact me from other states or other areas of the country that wanted to move here,” said Monty Strickland, 2021 president for MLSOK, a local association of Realtors. “I’ve helped people from California, from South Carolina, from Austin, from Chicago. I mean, they’re coming from everywhere. And I think there’s several reasons, one being the political climate. Historically, we’re a fairly conservative state, which I appreciate and that’s why I’m here personally. And people are tired of lockdowns and they’re tired of being told what they can do, where they can go. Fortunately, our governor did not lead us down that path. We took the conservative approach and it worked. My business has never been better from the standpoint of people coming here.”

Strickland said Oklahoma’s relatively low cost of living also played a role. While the median price for a home in the Oklahoma market has increased $50,000 over the last two years, the average home price is still lower than in many states’ markets, sometimes dramatically so.

The fact that most schools in Oklahoma remained open throughout the 2020-2021 school year also made the state attractive to people looking to relocate, he said.

“It was just kind of the perfect storm,” Strickland said, “for people that wanted to get a little piece of the Oklahoma pie.”

Ray Carter Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman. As a reporter for The Journal Record, Carter received 12 Carl Rogan Awards in four years—including awards for investigative reporting, general news reporting, feature writing, spot news reporting, business reporting, and sports reporting. While at The Oklahoman, he was the recipient of several awards, including first place in the editorial writing category of the Associated Press/Oklahoma News Executives Carl Rogan Memorial News Excellence Competition for an editorial on the history of racism in the Oklahoma legislature.

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