Oklahoma City Persecution of the Poor: A Short Bill of Particulars

In an interview with a reporter from the national publication Politico, our Mayor said —

As for the poor, Cornett says, his city offers them opportunities to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. About one in six residents live below the poverty line in his city, whose 3.6 percent unemployment rate compares well with a national urban rate of 4.8 percent. “The government isn’t really capable of handling complex social problems,” Cornett tells me. “My goal is provide jobs, to encourage people to find work and start businesses.” While the poor may not find it as easy to move up the ladder of success as they used to, he says, “In Oklahoma City I think the opportunities are pretty much available to you. I don’t think it’s good for government to send a message that they are not.”
Read more: http://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2015/12/oklahoma-city-weight-loss-what-works-213445#ixzz3yHLMDRPK

Au contraire, Mayor, Oklahoma City is already stirring the pot regarding its policies towards poor people.  But instead of helping the poor “pull themselves up,” Oklahoma City is busy cutting those bootstraps so that people who are poor stay poor.  If the prerequisite for employment is owning a car, then many lower income people are condemned to unemployment, or underemployment.  That’s a government policy, not a free market activity.

And while the Mayor brags about our low “unemployment” rate, everyone knows — or should know — that the unemployment figures are not very respectable. Like the statistics of the old Soviet Union, these figures are politically massaged to understate the problem.  This chart at the Shadow Government Statistics website suggests that the real unemployment rate may be nearly five times the rate reported by the government and accepted uncritically by most of the press.

So herewith I present this short “Bill of Particulars” regarding the persecution of the poor by Oklahoma City, demonstrating how Oklahoma City’s policies and ordinances create a system of social cruelty that persecutes the poor for the profit of those who are not poor.

Persecution via the city courts

OKC finances its court system on the backs of those least able to pay and is making a profit on the deal. Fines and costs received by OKC are about double the cost of operating its court system. Besides much pious rhetoric, zero progress has been made to reduce the impact of Oklahoma City’s unjust court rules and practices that specifically target poor people for punitive sanctions and jail time. The commission set up to study this system and recommend “changes” is packed with rich white men with a history of backing demagogic politicians with public reputations for hostility to poor people.

Persecution via the misallocation of funds, transferring resources from the poor to the wealthy.

The #1 thing the City does that persecutes the poor is its continual refusal to adequately fund a bus system, claiming “the money just isn’t available.” This city policy functionally requires that anyone who wants to work must be able to afford to buy and operate a vehicle. Some argue that bus service is subsidized, while “cars pay their own way with fuel taxes and registration fees.  However, the facts show that all forms of transportation are subsidized. Each Oklahoma City general obligation bond includes hundreds of millions of dollars to build and maintain streets. The bonds are paid by all citizens, not just those who drive cars. By some estimates only about half of the expenses related to automobile and truck transportation is paid for by fuel taxes and registration fees, leaving the rest of the tab to be picked up by the general taxpayers.  Since transportation is obviously a public amenity, paid for by the taxes of all citizens, not just those who drive cars, the City should not discriminate against those who ride the bus by not properly allocating the available transportation resources so that we have an effective bus service that gets people to work, to shop, to play, and to worship.

  • The Council campaigned for a hundred million dollar capital expenditure for a “street car to nowhere,” and has yet to announce where those operating funds will come from.
    The City is quick to extend four lane streets to new developments at the far edges of the City, thereby subsidizing sprawl that benefits upscale developers and households and picks the pockets of the poor and working class households in older areas of the cities. Why is the convenience of newly built suburbs of greater importance than the transit necessities of older, lower income neighborhoods?
  • The City has written hundreds of millions of dollars of welfare checks to wealthy developers and corporations via the TIF system, yet the transit system in the TIF project areas has never been considered for additional funding. TIF funds could be used to operate and enhance transit services in such districts, thereby freeing up funds for service enhancements and operations outside of the TIF districts.

OKC actually has plenty of money that could be used to provide a proper bus service. But it has a problem allocating its money. If we follow the dollars, we see that the City consistently under-funds services like the bus system that benefit lower income residents so that it can fully fund and increase services to the wealthy and politically well connected.

Persecution via a politicized process that finagles property prices to drive up rents.

City zoning laws concentrate mobile homes into “trailer park ghettos”. City ordinances restrict the ability of homeowners to add garage, basement, attic, and backyard apartments. Under the guise of “redevelopment,” the City has used eminent domain to ruthlessly destroy entire neighborhoods of poor people, scattering communities who have lived together for generations, paying them cheap prices for their properties, and transferring those properties via various sweetheart deals to wealthy and politically well connected developers. (That’s the real story of the ethnic cleansing of the Deep Deuce for the benefit of rich white people.) Thousands of units of low income housing have been destroyed by this politicized process, which raises the rents for everyone. The City sets standards requiring minimum lot sizes, minimum set backs, and minimum square feet for houses and apartments. All of these combine together to reduce the amount of housing available to low income people and increase the cost of housing via these non-free market, policitized processes.

Persecution via poor city maintenance in low income neighborhoods

The City routinely defers maintenance on streets in lower income neighborhoods. Conditions that would never be tolerated in Heritage Hills or Mesta Park are perennial realities in lower income neighborhoods. A good example of this is the “car bomb sized pothole” at SW 26 and Virginia that was cited by the Politico eHealth article referenced above.

Persecution via policies and ordinances that criminalize poverty.

City policies effectively criminalize poverty in general and homelessness in particular. The anti-panhandler crusade is a particularly egregious example of this process.

Persecution via business licenses, zoning, and the regulatory process

  • A business license is required to be a street entertainer. This prevents Oklahoma City from developing a fun street music scene that would benefit the community, the performers, and be an attraction for people visiting our City.
  • People can’t grow vegetables in their back yards and sell them to their neighbors in their front yards unless they are zoned for commercial activities.
  • People who can afford to buy a whole acre of property are allowed to have chickens and other farm animals. Anyone who can’t afford an acre of urban property is prohibited from having backyard chickens.
  • The Oklahoma City-County Health Department exceeded its authority and applied an abusive and hostile interpretation to the home bakery law passed by the state legislature in such a way as to effectively gut the law so that it is not practical to use it to start a small home business.

Favoritism to the wealthy and politically well connected.

When three of the wealthiest guys in the state showed up at City Hall with a plan to snatch grab the Seattle Sonics to create the OKC Thunder, the Mayor did not say. . . “What a great idea!  I’ll support you all the way as you bootstrap your way forward.”  No, he reached for the City checkbook and said, “Would $120 million help?”  When Devon wanted to have a new streetscape around its new 50 story building, but didn’t want to pay for it, did the Mayor say, “What a great bootstrap project!” No, he said, “How about a nice TIF district that will take much of that increased tax money away from the schools, the health department, and the libraries, and spend it to redecorate downtown?  And we’ll borrow 20 years of tax receipts from you and pay you a high interest rate on the money. Is that a great deal or what?”

The Mayor makes demands on the poor that he would never make of his rich and politically well connected friends.

So it comes to pass that in Oklahoma City, the poor definitely sit in the back of the bus.

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