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Oklahoma among top 10 states for job creation

Ray Carter | June 12, 2024

Seven years ago, one of Nada Higuera’s best friends moved from southern California, where they both lived, to Oklahoma. It was a decision that made little sense to Higuera at the time.

“When she moved, I was just like, ‘Why Oklahoma?’” Higuera said. “I never really heard anything about Oklahoma. I thought it was so weird, and a weird place to move.”

But two years ago the Higuera family made the same decision, joining a steadily growing number of people from across the nation who have moved to Oklahoma since 2019. In the last five years, numerous reports have found that Oklahoma is among the top state destinations for citizens moving out of other states.

A recent Stateline analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data provides the latest example. According to that review, Oklahoma created 140,114 new jobs from March 2019 to 2024. That raw number exceeded the number of new jobs created in 41 other states. Oklahoma ranked 9th best nationwide.

Gov. Kevin Stitt, who has overseen a dramatic change in Oklahoma’s fortunes during his tenure, said the explanation is simple.

“Oklahoma has sent a clear signal to the nation that we’re open for business,” Stitt said. “We’ve slashed regulations and cut red tape—and that has given us incredible momentum. And unlike blue states like New York, Oklahoma isn’t going to play politics with business or pick winners and losers. That’s what businesses want.”

Oklahoma’s success is not only in sharp contrast to the rest of the nation but also a dramatic difference from Oklahoma’s performance prior to Stitt’s election.

From March 2014 to 2019, Oklahoma added just 70,979 new jobs, ranking 31st.

During the 2014-2019 period, Oklahoma experienced an oil bust that caused significant economic harm that was made worse by government policies enacted at the time, such as roughly $1 billion in tax and revenue increases signed into law by Stitt’s predecessor, then-Gov. Mary Fallin.

By 2019, research by Federal Reserve Bank officials showed that “more people moved out of Oklahoma to live in other parts of the United States than moved in” during each of the prior three years.

At that time, Jonathan Williams, chief economist for the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), said there was a link between tax increases and Oklahoma’s loss of population.

“The last two years of tax increases have been a toxic mix that certainly has contributed to the outmigration issue that Oklahoma faces,” Williams said.

However, since Stitt assumed office in January 2019, the state has cut taxes and socked away historic savings to prevent a recurrence of the 2014-2019 debacle.

As the policy approach in Oklahoma shifted from tax increases to tax cuts, from state spending that exceeded recurring revenue to fiscally prudent budgeting, Oklahoma’s population trends have also done a 180. Not only has Oklahoma’s population growth and job creation improved, but that growth is now among the nation’s most robust.

The same Federal Reserve reports that were informing Oklahoma of negative trends in 2019 are now noting strong positive trends today.

The Jan. 9, 2024, edition of the Oklahoma Economist, a publication of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, noted that Oklahoma’s population grew by 0.85 percent in 2023, “the fastest rate since 2013,” and came after two consecutive years of 0.7 percent growth in 2021 and 2022.

Based on the most recent data from the New York Fed’s Consumer Credit Panel (CCP), the Federal Reserve report noted that Oklahoma “had a net gain of residents from 29 states over the past year (from Q3 2022 to Q3 2023).”

Some officials have argued that domestic migration to states like Oklahoma is the product of companies shifting jobs to states where wages are lower than average, such as moving operations from California and New York to Texas and Florida.

But several states defy that theory and indicate that government policies are also playing a significant role. For example, New Mexico, which borders part of Oklahoma and has average wages that are comparable to the average income in Oklahoma, produced just 26,456 new jobs from 2019 to today. That’s far below the level of new jobs created in Oklahoma.

Notably, Democrats hold sway in New Mexico, while Oklahoma is governed by Republican supermajorities who have advanced conservative policy, often at Stitt’s urging.

On trips to visit her now-Oklahoma-residing friend, Higuera had the opportunity to see Oklahoma close-up. She liked what she saw, including everything from the friendliness of the people to the beauty of the sunsets.

Then COVID hit and the response of California officials was among the most restrictive in the nation. The Higuera family found themselves looking for an exit.

“It wasn’t a good place to live,” Higuera said. “Even though California is beautiful and there’s a lot of diversity, there’s a lot of economic opportunity, the regulations that were put on people, I didn’t like it. My husband didn’t like it. We couldn’t imagine sending our kids to either public school or private school because both of them had a lot of regulations. At the time, two-year-olds, even in private schools and private daycares, had to wear masks indoors.”

Ultimately, not only did Higuera and her husband and children move to Oklahoma, but so did her in-laws.

Her husband is a mechanical engineer. Higuera is an attorney. For a time, she worked remotely but ultimately decided to take the bar exam in Oklahoma. Higuera is now a licensed attorney in both California and Oklahoma and has her own practice, which has allowed her to set her own schedule to have more time with her children while maintaining her career.

Higuera said the move to Oklahoma has provided her family with a better life in a better environment. And they are not looking back.

“We keep waiting to regret and think, ‘What in the world? Why did we do this?’” Higuera said. “But it’s the opposite. So many things are just affirming that we made the right decision, and this really is the best place.”

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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