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Mar. 11 2010 - 2:28 pm | 7,068 views | 0 recommendations | 16 comments

California unemployment and Oklahoma’s growth – it’s the ‘Grapes of Wrath’ in reverse

Cover of "The Grapes of Wrath"

Tom Joad IV is a Perl engineer with a subprime mortgage and student loans to pay (Cover of The Grapes of Wrath)

The Los Angeles Times published some really devastating unemployment numbers today – not only is unemployment rising in California generally, but in 8 of the Golden State’s counties, the rate is above 20%:

New county-by-county figures released by the state Wednesday showed that in eight counties, more than 1 in 5 people were out of work. Moreover, revised numbers for last year show that fewer people were employed than was previously believed.

The state was one of five, along with Florida, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina, that reached their highest unemployment rates since the government began keeping track in 1976, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. California’s was 12.5% in January, up from 12.3% in December.


Most counties were still struggling under the burden of joblessness, especially the eight counties where rates were higher than 20%. Merced County, for instance, had an unemployment rate of 21.7% in January, and Imperial County’s rate was 27.3%.

These numbers also got me thinking about the more triumphalist reports we’ve heard about how some states are bucking the scary unemployment trends that places like California are facing. Oklahoma was on my mind in particular. I remember when my cousin Penelope Trunk was plotting her family’s flight from their tiny tenement in Brooklyn’s Park Slope a couple of years ago, and we joked around about moving to Oklahoma City because the cost of living was so low there.

Turns out it’s not such a joke!

In fact, a lot of people are making this choice. The Tulsa World noted in December:

The state added 43,025 residents from July 2008 to July 2009, the largest annual increase this decade.

The annual increase also reverses the one-year dip when the population failed to increase more than it did the previous year.

Overall, the Census Bureau estimates the Oklahoma population was 3,687,050 in July 2009 compared to 3,644,025 in July 2008. The annual population increase was 39,780 in 2007 and 34,238 in 2008.

Most of the overall population increase was fueled by persons moving to Oklahoma from other states, defined as domestic migration.

Domestic migration accounted for 18,345 new residents to the state with international migrants accounting for 5,340 additional people.

It’s not quite gangbusters, but it shows that the state known more for the Dust Bowl than for economic opportunity has turned itself around in a lot of ways. The Oklahoman’s crack Database Editor Paul Monies put together some visualizations of the differences in population between the Oklahoma of the Great Depression and the the Oklahoma of the Great Recession. His newspaper went on some months later to reflect triumphantly in an editorial:

Time was when Oklahomans fled to California in great numbers, so much so that the Golden State tried to put a stop to it. Now Californians are moving east; some of them are landing in Oklahoma. Cox says that in every year during the 2000s, Oklahoma gained net domestic migrants from California.

So I guess it’s like The Grapes of Wrath in reverse. The Joads have spent a few generations in California and may be wondering if they left a little too much behind on that dusty farmland where their Okie forebears squatted. And with more than 1 in 4 people jobless in Imperial, the county that abuts San Diego County in southern California, the ones going east to destinations like Oklahoma City just might be making the right bet.


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  1. collapse expand

    Oklahoma 2009 unemployment:

    Tulsa Metro: 6.8%
    Oklahoma City Metro: 6.4%
    Oklahoma City itself: 6%
    New construction in OKC up 1% last quarter

    Here in OKC one sees new construction and refurbishment all over town, including a new 50 story building to join the business, residential and entertainment activity downtown. We are in the middle of a $700 million school capital improvements program that includes 70 new or renovated schools. These are the fruits of common sense conservatism. You won’t find a more “can-do” attitude anywhere.

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