Ray Carter | December 21, 2023
Oklahoma remains top 10 in domestic migration
Oklahoma was one of the first states to fully reopen during the Covid pandemic.
Recent state laws have restricted the use of Critical Race Theory in Oklahoma classrooms, barred schools from allowing males to use female bathrooms, and prohibited hospitals from providing children with puberty blockers, cross-sex hormones, or sex-change surgeries to treat gender dysphoria. Current state law also restricts abortion in most situations other than those where the life of the mother is at stake.
This year, Oklahoma enacted one of the most robust school-choice programs in the nation, making all families eligible for refundable tax credits to pay for private school.
Lawmakers have also cut state taxes and may be poised to do so again next year.
In response, naysayers have repeatedly claimed adoption of those policies and other conservative measures are driving people from Oklahoma and making the state a national pariah.
But U.S. Census data indicate the opposite trend is occurring.
In stark contrast to the picture painted by critics, Oklahoma remains among the 10 states receiving the largest raw number of domestic migrants—citizens who move from one state to another—even as policymakers have adopted conservative policy measures on a wide range of issues.
Newly released figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that from July 1, 2022, to July 1, 2023, Oklahoma’s population increased by a net 34,553 people, with 23,587 of that total the result of citizens moving to Oklahoma from other states. Only eight states had a higher level of raw domestic migration during the last year: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
That continues a trend that has been ongoing since, roughly, the initial outbreak of COVID in 2020.
From April 1, 2020, to July 1, 2023, U.S. Census figures show that Oklahoma’s population has increased by a net 94,413 people. Of that total, a net 80,064 people have been added to Oklahoma’s population as the result of domestic migration from other states.
Only nine states have had a greater level of domestic migration since the start of COVID: Alabama, Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Idaho, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas.
Defying the naysayers
That Oklahoma is not only attracting people from other states but doing so at a greater level than 40 other states directly contradicts the predictions of doom voiced by opponents of various laws enacted in recent years in Oklahoma.
During a 2021 panel hosted by the Oklahoma Conference of Churches (now known as Oklahoma Faith Network) titled, “Is America a ‘Fundamentally Racist Nation’? A Faith Perspective,” numerous participants proclaimed that Oklahoma lawmakers were causing people to leave the state in droves.
Much of the panel’s focus was on enactment of House Bill 1775, which banned K-12 schools from teaching several concepts, including that “one race or sex is inherently superior to another race or sex,” that “an individual, by virtue of his or her race or sex, is inherently racist, sexist or oppressive, whether consciously or unconsciously,” or that individuals “should be discriminated against or receive adverse treatment solely or partly because of his or her race or sex.”
Shannon Fleck, executive director of the Oklahoma Conference of Churches, said that “the future of Oklahoma is literally leaving the borders of Oklahoma because of the laws that are being passed.”
“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,’” Fleck said. “And I do not blame them.”
State Rep. John Waldron, D-Tulsa, stated, “When I was a teacher in the classroom, the impact I saw was that we sent the signal to a lot of our young people that Oklahoma’s not for them, and they move and they take their talents elsewhere.”
Lawrence Ware, a teaching assistant professor and diversity liaison in the Department of Philosophy at Oklahoma State University, proclaimed, “Everybody around us looks down on this state. 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.”
During debate over legislation to prohibit sex-change surgeries and other similar treatments for children who experience gender dysphoria, state Rep. Mauree Turner, D-Oklahoma City, similarly predicted that the law would drive people out of Oklahoma.
“I’m still getting emails today from parents who are trying to find funding to leave this state,” Turner said.
Contrary to his opponents, Gov. Kevin Stitt has argued the policy choices made during his tenure are making Oklahoma a magnet for people across the nation.
Stitt has even cited one of this year’s biggest policy achievements—enactment of universal school choice—as a tool for attracting more people and businesses to Oklahoma.
House Bill 1934 created the Oklahoma Parental Choice Tax Credit Act. The new program, which provides refundable tax credits of $5,000 to $7,500 per child to cover the cost of private school tuition starting in January 2024, began taking applications on Dec. 6. All families are eligible for the tax credits.
When Stitt signed HB 1934 in May, he predicted the program would make Oklahoma more attractive to families and businesses across the nation.
“I think it’s going to be a recruitment tool, that people are going to be moving here from Dallas and Washington, D.C.,” Stitt said. “We’re already top 10 in migration, people moving to the great state of Oklahoma. That’s only going to continue thanks to the people in this room, the leadership of the House and the Senate, getting this great bill across the finish line.”
Oklahoma’s appeal as a landing spot for Americans looking to leave their current state of residence for greener pastures stands in stark contrast to the domestic-migration figures in states whose leaders have chosen a public-policy path opposite Oklahoma’s trajectory.
Census data shows that since 2020, California has lost more than 1.1 million residents to domestic migration, Illinois has lost more than 364,000 residents to outmigration, and New York has lost more than 882,000 residents to other states.
While Oklahoma has fared better than most states in the competition for domestic migration, there are indications Oklahoma could still do better.
Among the small group of states that have enjoyed greater levels of positive domestic migration than Oklahoma, three do not have a personal income tax: Florida, Tennessee, and Texas. A fourth state, Arizona, has a top personal income-tax rate of 2.5 percent, well below Oklahoma’s current top rate of 4.75 percent.
However, Gov. Kevin Stitt has called for cutting Oklahoma’s personal income-tax rate and putting the tax on a gradual path to full repeal. House leaders have voiced support for additional tax cuts, as have several members of the Senate.
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.