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California's hard times driving people back to the 'Dust Bowl'


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Former Del Paso Heights resident Branddon Jones lives with his 
daughters, from left, Taiya, 3, Taniya, 8, and Kaiyah, 6. Jones, who is 
separated from his wife, believes his family is safer in Oklahoma City 
than in his old Sacramento neighborhood, saying t

Manny Cristosomo / Sacramento Bee

Former Del Paso Heights resident Branddon Jones lives with his daughters, from left, Taiya, 3, Taniya, 8, and Kaiyah, 6. Jones, who is separated from his wife, believes his family is safer in Oklahoma City than in his old Sacramento neighborhood, saying that he prefers the occasional threat of a tornado to the sound of gunshots in the evening. | View larger image

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By Phillip Reese | Sacramento Bee

OKLAHOMA CITY — Fleeing the Great Depression and a drought unprecedented in American history, a vast wave of Oklahomans and Texans dubbed "Okies" loaded everything they could onto crowded vehicles during the 1930s and headed west for California. Today, in huge numbers, their grandchildren are moving back.

It doesn't take Loren O'Laughlin much time to come up with a reason why, in between bites of a burger at an Oklahoma City diner. "There aren't really people lined up on the streets here competing for a few scraps," said O'Laughlin, 23, who grew up in Sacramento but recently graduated from Oklahoma Christian University and opted to stay put. "Small businesses thrive here because networking is so easy."

As California housing prices went wild in the middle of this decade, hundreds of thousands of residents scratched their heads and moved to places where homes were still affordable, state and federal statistics show. When prices started falling and unemployment started rising, many continued to leave California for healthier job markets.

The result was five consecutive years when California saw more residents going to other states than coming. Although many stayed closer to home – Nevada, Oregon, Arizona – the mid-South saw a large influx.

From 2004 through 2007, about 275,000 Californians left the Golden State for the old Dust Bowl states of Oklahoma and Texas, twice the number that left those two states for California, recent Internal Revenue Service figures show. In fact, the mid-South gained more residents from California during those four years than either Oregon, Nevada or Arizona. The trend continued into 2008.

As a result, it's easy to find Californians – even former Sacramentans – living and working in Oklahoma City, a capital of the American heartland.

Ask these Okies-in-reverse why they traded the Golden State for the Sooner State – named for settlers who came there sooner than the Homestead Act allowed – and you'll hear a lot of similar themes: easier to find a job; cheaper to buy or rent a home; better place to make a fresh start. Ask them why they stay in Oklahoma and they'll add to that list a deep optimism that it's a place where things are about to take off.

"Oklahoma City is like Sacramento back when the Kings were in the playoffs," said Branddon Jones, 26, who moved about a year ago to get out of Del Paso Heights. "It's growing. You can get a job. It's just crazy."

Two different cities

A lot of that has to do with the downtown core, particularly an area called Bricktown where, on a recent Thursday, former Sacramentan Tim Higgins sat on a restaurant patio, watching water taxis weave through a nearby canal.

Around Higgins was a vast collection of old warehouses that sat abandoned as recently as 15 years ago. That was before the city's residents – though relatively conservative – passed a temporary 1-cent sales tax increase to improve downtown; before the funds from that tax increase built a baseball stadium, an arena (now occupied by an NBA team), a canal and a library; before at least 1,000 new housing units sprang up within walking distance of where Higgins was sitting.

Now those warehouses are warrens of shops and eateries, cozying up to the meandering canal.

"This would be the equivalent of Old Sacramento," said Higgins, 47, "except it's much more happening."

From the restaurant patio, Higgins could see a large crane working. Just to his south, workers toiled on a massive project to move a federal interstate away from downtown to make way for a park.

The bustle is very different from what Higgins, a videographer, witnessed back home before he moved out in October.

"When I left, all construction had stopped throughout California," he said. "Here I see a lot of construction, a lot of new businesses."

Slow and steady

Watching tax revenues gush into California city coffers as housing prices skyrocketed a few years ago, Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett couldn't avoid a twinge of envy. He doesn't feel that way now.

Oklahoma City didn't boom, and it's not busting.

Things aren't perfect, but unlike Sacramento, there have been no city employee layoffs, nor are any being discussed. Unlike Sacramento, Oklahoma City does not face a giant budget deficit.

"We're flat," the mayor said.

And for next year? "We're projecting slight growth."

The metro area of 1.2 million grows by a percentage point or two every year, its housing prices keep up with inflation and its businesses tend to expand at a sustainable pace.

Oklahoma City's economy is diverse, but its three biggest drivers are energy, government and defense, industries that generally tend to be stable. Several of the largest natural gas companies in the nation are based here. So is Tinker Air Force Base, which employs tens of thousands.

Add to that some quality of life measures: little traffic, almost as many days of sunshine as Sacramento and residents widely regarded as among the nation's friendliest.

But the city does have its downsides, according to several of the Sacramento refugees. The weather can be random, even dangerous when tornadoes sweep through. Mass transit is woefully inadequate. There's far less ethnic or cultural diversity than in California. And Oklahoma City is seriously landlocked, a full day's drive from the nearest coastline.

The recession also is starting to bite. Oklahoma's unemployment rate has jumped in the last year to about 6 percent.

All about jobs

Unemployment in California, however, now stands at 11 percent, nearly twice Oklahoma's. It doesn't take an economist to figure out which state offers more options to job seekers.

Branddon Jones certainly thinks his luck has improved since leaving Sacramento. He joined the Army as a cook after graduating from Grant High in 2001. Three years later, his mom died, and he came back to his hometown.

A father himself by then, Jones struggled to make it in Del Paso Heights and, later, south Sacramento. He had a brush with the law – a weapons charge. He worked some decent, low-skill jobs but could barely afford rent. His dad, meanwhile, was making a good wage in Oklahoma City.

Jones thought about his life in 10 years, the lives of his three young daughters in 10 years, and he saw himself working the same types of jobs and living in the same places. He felt like he couldn't catch a break.

"You've got to have something to make it out of there," he said, referring to south Sacramento and Del Paso Heights. "In Oklahoma City, if you just wake up every morning and do what you are supposed to do, you won't have any problems."

After arriving in 2008, Jones quickly found a few good jobs to choose from. Generally he has found pay comparable to California, but there are a couple of key differences, he said.

If he feels like he is being mistreated or cheated, Jones said, he can shrug his shoulders, quit and quickly find something else just as good. He did that recently when he said a boss didn't follow through with a promised raise.

Affordable housing

More importantly, Jones said, his money stretches a lot further. A gas station clerk in Oklahoma makes about $1.50 an hour less than a gas station clerk in California. But Jones takes his money from working behind the counter and spends $400 a month for a one-bedroom apartment. In Del Paso Heights, a similarly sized apartment could easily cost $750.

That's where the similarity ends, too. Jones is not living in the Oklahoma City equivalent of Del Paso Heights. He lives a short drive from a large city lake, not far from a vibrant commercial strip featuring a Romano's Italian Grill and a Chuck-E-Cheese.

All three of his kids, ages 3, 6 and 8, live with him, and they love it. Jones, who is separated from his wife, said his family is safer here than in his old neighborhood – he prefers the occasional threat of a tornado to the sound of gunshots in the evening.

Tim Higgins has swankier digs. He sleeps on the 12th floor of a downtown high-rise in a one-bedroom apartment. Yet he pays just slightly more than $800 a month in rent, including utilities.

"When I arrived here, I managed to get a local phone number, a local bank account and an apartment in a secured downtown building – all in one hour," Higgins said. "I don't know anywhere else where that would happen that quickly."

Higgins also came to Oklahoma in pursuit of opportunity. He had spent 15 years running video and audio at Arco Arena, including for the Sacramento Kings. They parted ways in 2003, and Higgins had been freelancing since then, hoping to get back into the National Basketball Association.

Enter the Oklahoma City Thunder, the newest team in the NBA. They needed a video guy, and they offered the gig to Higgins just days before their inaugural season began in October. He took it, and has worked almost nonstop since.

It's a simple equation for Higgins. "As far as being more attractive than Sacramento – yes, there is a job here for me!" he said.

Losing good people

Many of those leaving California for the mid-South have valuable skills, census figures show. They skew younger and highly educated, the kind of people upon which a state builds its future.

In concrete terms: California is losing people like Loren O'Laughlin.

O'Laughlin is an artist and designer. He left Rancho Cordova when he got a scholarship from Oklahoma Christian University, and he liked the college's vibe. He never planned to stay in the area, but he met his wife in college, and he was wooed by a local company months before he graduated with a bachelor's degree in art and design.

Now O'Laughlin designs trophies for MTM Recognition, a large outfit with big-name clients. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. raises that massive trophy over his head after winning a big NASCAR race, there's a pretty good chance that O'Laughlin helped design it.

O'Laughlin earns $16 an hour. It may not seem like a lot, but, along with his wife's job teaching English as a second language, the couple can afford a two-bedroom house in a cute neighborhood – think the area around the UC Davis Medical Center in Sacramento – for which they pay $690 a month. (The median income is about 20 percent lower in Oklahoma City than in Sacramento, but that income goes 10 percent further, federal statistics show.)

O'Laughlin admits to having mixed feelings about his adopted city. His wife, Penelope, grew up in Oklahoma, and she wants to leave as soon as she finishes her master's degree.

Devoutly Christian, O'Laughlin is nonetheless frustrated by what he perceives as the religious ethos in many Oklahoma City suburbs. Or as he puts it in a typical rapid-fire tirade: "The strange hybrid of Americana-consumer-driven-megachurch-evangelical-nothing-is-wrong-here-everything's-fine-oil-money-endowed-conservative Christianity that bombs recklessly around town in an H2."

That frustration shows up in O'Laughlin's art, much of it hanging these days at a local coffee shop where he is the artist of the month. His paintings are often bleak, modern interpretations of religious themes such as the stoning of St. Stephen. They're often painted on scraps of junk metal he finds while riding his bike to work.

O'Laughlin is thinking about moving back to the West Coast, but to Portland, Ore., not Sacramento. Still, standing amid scrap he is rusting to artistic perfection in his backyard, he worries about leaving behind a good situation.

"The thought of moving somewhere else, as much as Penelope wants to be somewhere else," he said, "we can't afford to have the lifestyle we have here."

No intention of returning

As much as California could use more creative talent like O'Laughlin's, it needs newly minted nurses like Angela Outlaw even more. The state is short about 50,000 registered nurses, according to the California Labor and Workforce Development Agency.

But Outlaw has no intention of returning to California. She has many quality hospitals to choose from in Oklahoma, and if she does move, she said, it will be to someplace like Austin, not like Antelope.

"I meet more Californians here than anyone else," said Outlaw, 42. "And, most of them are planning on staying here permanently."

Outlaw first left Sacramento for Texas but headed to Oklahoma a few years ago when her mother was transferred to Tinker Air Force Base after McClellan shut down. A California State University, Sacramento, graduate, Outlaw went back to school at the University of Oklahoma and will finish her nursing degree within a year.

She spends many of her weekends hiking in the Wichita Mountains southwest of Oklahoma City. She admits that "the mountains are really hills," especially compared to the Sierra Nevada, but says the canyons and the granite outcroppings covered with deep green shrubbery nonetheless inspire her.

Outlaw converted to Christianity a few years after moving to the mid-South and worships at one of Chuck Smith's nondenominational Calvary Chapel churches, part of a national evangelical movement that maintains the Bible is complete and infallible.

"I feel free to express my faith in God here," she said. "In California, I find that people are often less accepting of people's spiritual beliefs."

Sitting just a few miles from a modern airport named after perhaps the most famous Oklahoman ever to leave for California, Will Rogers, Outlaw talked about her new home the same way an Okie might have talked about the Central Valley decades ago.

"I never thought I would leave California," Outlaw said. "But all the neat places I've seen, the people I've met – I'm really glad I left."

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The Reverse Dust Bowl: Population growth in the Sooner State

by David | July 7th, 2009 | Posted in Data | Tagged with Census Bureau, Department of Commerce, migration, Oklahoma, Population growth | leave a comment

We recently reported on how Oklahoma’s robust economic growth prior to the recent downturn vaulted the state from the poorest fifth of states early this decade, as measured by per capita personal income,  to the 28th spot in 2008. Further confirmation of the state’s good fortunes is provided by the annual population estimates produced by the U.S. Census Bureau and aggregated into user-friendly spreadsheets by the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. As can be seen from the table below, Oklahoma’s population growth trailed the national average for the first part of this decade, but then caught up and passed the national average in the three years of 2006-08. In 2008, the state’s population grew by an estimated 34,238 people, or 0.95 percent, slightly outpacing the 0.92 percent population growth of the nation as a whole. The state’s estimated population on July 1, 2008 was 3,642,361, making it thpopchangee 28th most populous state for the eighth straight year.

Since 2000, Oklahoma’s population has grown at an average annual rate of 0.67 percent, 27th fastest among the states but somewhat below the national average of 0.94 percent. During this period, Nevada has experienced the greatest population growth at an average annual rate of 3.24 percent. Louisiana is the only state to have lost population since 2000, due to Hurricane Katerina and its aftermath, while Rhode Island, North Dakota, West Virginia and Michigan have all grown less than 0.1 percent per year.

New data released last week showed population changes at the city level. Fairmont in Garfield County (+7.0 percent) and Collinsville in Tulsa County (+6.9 percent) were the state’s fastest growing cities in 2008. Oklahoma City’s population increased 1.2 percent in 2008 to 551,789 residents, while Tulsa grew 0.5 percent to 385,635.

At the state level, Oklahoma’s population growth this decade has been primarily due to growth in the state’s Hispanic population.  Hispanics account for a full 52 percent of the state’s total population growth between 2000 and 2008. The Hispanic population grew by 55.4 percent in this period, while the number of non-Hispanics increased by just 2.8 percent. The growing Hispanic population reflects a combination of migration and a young population of child-bearing age.

Both  international and domestic migration have played a role in Oklahoma’s recent population growth. While the former has captured a great deal of attention, it is also the case that in recent years, more people are moving into Oklahoma from other states than are moving out. The June Oklahoma Data Center newsletter of the Department of Commerce examines data from the American Community Survey from 2005 to 2007 and finds that Oklahoma experienced a net population gain of 21,000 people moving from other states. Among the report’s findings:

While Oklahoma’s recent population growth is good news in a number of ways, the state is not expected to regain its sixth Congressional seat lost after the 2000 Census. According to projections by Election Data Services, 8 or 9 states are likely to gain one or more seats in the 2010 Congressional reapportionment, while 10-12 states are likely to lose at least one seat;  Oklahoma is virtually guaranteed to hold steady with five seats in the House of Representatives.


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Mar. 11 2010 - 2:28 pm | 7,068 views | 0 recommendations | 13 comments

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



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.

Business-friendly locale draws Boeing to state

Published: Wednesday, August 4, 2010 7:00 am

The Oklahoman

We've written occasionally in recent years about Californians who have moved east for opportunities in Oklahoma instead of the other way around. Boeing offers a corporate example of this reverse migration.

Boeing already has a presence in Oklahoma City but that will increase significantly with the addition of 550 engineering jobs during the next few years. The aviation giant is moving its C-130 Avionics Modernization and B-1 programs to its site near Tinker Air Force Base, drawn here in part by a more business-friendly climate than tax-happy California.

It costs companies far less to do business in Oklahoma than it does in California. Those who move here with Boeing will see their paychecks go much further, as housing and just about everything else is far less expensive than on the West Coast (or most anywhere in America, for that matter).

This move underscores the importance the aviation and aerospace industries play in Oklahoma. They combine to make up roughly 10 percent of our state's economy, with about 143,000 people making their living in these areas.

Boeing's announcement also highlights the importance of skilled workers. These jobs will be filled in a few years. But if the industry is to reach its potential here, Oklahoma must produce more skilled workers.

Steve Hendrickson, Boeing's director of government operations, says the industry needs to encourage students as young as middle-schoolers to consider careers in aerospace. Doing so can only benefit this important industry, and help keep Oklahoma attractive to companies looking for a new place to land.


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Localities Ramp Up Incentives, Credits To Attract Jobs

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By Darrell A. Hughes

Facing high joblessness and lackluster economies, local governments are competing more aggressively with tax breaks and other incentives to lure companies to relocate to their regions.

Economic development incentives put forth by Oklahoma, for example, helped them to convince Boeing Co. to move an aerospace maintenance division to Oklahoma City from Long Beach, Calif.

Beginning next year, the aircraft manufacturing giant will begin shifting roughly 550 jobs to Oklahoma City. The relocation will begin in the spring of 2011 and is scheduled to conclude by the end of 2012. “We hope a lot of companies take advantage of these incentive offers,” Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett said.

Oklahoma created an incentive package designed to attract what they call “21st century quality jobs.” Under their plan, Boeing is eligible to receive cash back, up to 10% of its payroll, for up to 10 years. According to Oklahoma’s Commerce Department, this incentive is a first; no other government across the U.S. is offering cash. Additionally, Boeing would also be eligible to apply for a 10% tax credit, per employee, for hiring an in-state engineering graduate. Those hired from out of state would make the firm eligible for a 5% tax credit.

Aside from having attractive incentives for businesses, Oklahoma is slated to offer a $5,000 tax credit, for up to five years, to engineers hired into the aerospace industry.

Boeing spokesman Forrest Gossett declined to discuss the role incentives played in the company’s decision to relocate. “I’m not in the position to determine whether [the incentives] were aggressive or not aggressive,” he said.

U.S. Commerce Assistant Secretary for Economic Development John Fernandez said he understands why local governments are offering aggressive incentives in the current economic downturn. However, he said, the competition isn’t just among cities and states, “the competition is [among] regions all around the world.”

Fernandez said state and local governments need to focus on creating globally competitive environments that build up the local work force, improve the roads and other infrastructure and provide support for entrepreneurs.

“The goal isn’t to land just one company; the goal is to create an ecosystem where many companies can be born and grow to create jobs,” Fernandez said, adding that’s a “harder sell sometimes.”

Oklahoma City Mayor Cornett and the state’s Commerce Secretary Natalie Shirley acknowledged the role of aggressive incentives, but said Oklahoma’s incentives were crafted with specific goals in mind. In the past, Oklahoma hadn’t provided inducements to attract targeted industries, such the engineering and information technology sectors.

“The incentive packages were developed at the same time as the engineering tax credit, and were very strategic in the sense of driving towards a particular type of job that we wanted to see in the state,” Shirley said.

Cornett said that ultimately, companies assess the cost of doing business and whether there is an adequate workforce. “Once people visit Oklahoma and see it, all questions are answered — but getting that first step in the door is a little bit tricky,” Cornett said.

Even so, firms know there are limited projects, and many regions are searching for jobs, said Wayne Gregory, economic development director of Georgetown County in South Carolina. “You’ve got to be aggressive with the incentives in order to compete in the marketplace,” Gregory said, adding “you’ve got to pay to play.”