Born of the Dust Bowl –
Hunger and homelessness may still exist in Oklahoma, but they are no longer the unexceptional fact of life they once were. Children and people with disabilities are no longer warehoused in state institutions. The poorest families have access to medical care and people can get help in their home communities. Parents who cannot earn enough to support their children have a chance at education and training that was unheard of two generations ago.
Oklahoma’s original public assistance programs have evolved since they were created in the Depression year of 1936, a time of desperate human need. Voters by a 2-to-1 majority had approved a state constitutional amendment creating the Department of Public Welfare, a nine-member commission, and a director to carry out the mission stated in Article XXV: “the relief and care of needy aged persons who are unable to provide for themselves, and other needy persons who, on account of immature age, physical infirmity, disability, or other cause, are unable to provide or care for themselves...”
Since those early days, the Department has used a mix of state and federal money and mandates to eliminate a tremendous amount of poverty in the state. Starting in the 1950s, federal requirements and legislative transfers expanded the Department into an umbrella agency for health care, social services, vocational and income maintenance programs.
Landmark federal legislation, much of it drafted in Oklahoma, established the Medicaid program in 1966, and the federally financed Food Stamp Program began in 1974. Both offered different types of public assistance to many thousands of Oklahomans who were not receiving cash grants under the Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) program.
Until 1987, Oklahoma’s state funding for public assistance programs came from earmarked sales tax, a revenue source which accumulated carryover reserves in more prosperous years. Sales tax financing helped meet federal mandates and relieve overburdened state programs as legislators through the years transferred state institutions for children and for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities, the vocational rehabilitation program, and state teaching hospitals to the agency. Physical plants at the various institutions were in appalling disrepair, leading to massive renovation and construction along with intensive staffing and treatment programs.
Class action lawsuits in 1978 and 1985 produced mandates for community-based services for children in state institutions, and for residents of The Hissom Memorial Center, an institution for persons with intellectual and developmental disabilities in Sand Springs. By 1985, all but two of the children’s institutions had been closed; most of the physical facilities were transferred to the Department of Corrections.
Hissom residents were moved to community placements by April 1994, and the department began serving large numbers of persons with developmental disabilities in their communities. The number of residents at the two remaining institutions in Pauls Valley and Enid began to decrease for the first time in state history as residents and parents were offered community services as an alternative to institutional care.
Severe economic hardship has hit Oklahoma several times during the state’s history. After the 1936 Depression era, Oklahoma was plunged into another major recession in the early 1980s after plummeting crude oil prices. Banks failed. AFDC caseloads broke records. Workers who had migrated from other states during the oil and gas boom years swelled the ranks of Oklahoma’s jobless. Echoing the Depression years, they camped around lake and resort areas until rangers told them to move on. OKDHS workers, placed on furlough themselves, brokered cash grants and social services to keep stranded families going.
The latest recession which began in 2009 caused record numbers of people to seek food benefits from the former food stamp program now named SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program). Although Oklahoma’s jobless rate and the economy fared better than most states’ this time around, the majority of the Department’s clientele changed to the underemployed--the working poor who had sporadic jobs but did not make enough money to put food on the table for their families.
Throughout Oklahoma’s history of providing public assistance to citizens in need, the Department pioneered work programs for welfare clients. In 1965, the agency used concepts from the Federal Emergency Relief Administration of the 1930s to model its work and training program. Oklahoma was the first state in the nation to require mothers with children under age 6 to register for job training under a waiver of federal AFDC regulations, and it was among the first to implement the JOBS program under the Family Support Act of 1988.
The agency’s official name has changed twice since 1936, in response to federal mandates. It became the Department of Institutions, Social and Rehabilitative Services in 1970 and was renamed the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) in 1980.
Toward the end of the 1980’s, computer technology was helping the Department’s workers deal with increased caseloads and shrinking budgets. The Model County Project allowed workers immediate access to on-line policy, provide statewide tracking on case data — a critical need for Oklahoma’s highly mobile client population — and supply on-line forms to streamline paperwork in the agency’s public assistance programs. Later, Oklahoma would become the first state in the nation to create a federally approved SACWIS (Statewide Automated Child Welfare Information System). This computer system called “KIDS” allowed child welfare workers to automate their case management records and report data to the federal government.
The 1995 fiscal year was a major turning point for Oklahoma welfare programs. Sixty years after Congress passed the landmark Social Security Act of 1935, national debate centered on converting entitlement programs to block grants and giving states discretion on expenditures. OKDHS had a head start on the nation’s welfare reform initiative.
Selected county offices began testing changes in client earnings, resources, and time-limited benefits under waivers of federal AFDC regulations. Changes were recommended by the Oklahoma Commission for Human Services in a January 1994 report, “Welfare Reform for the 21st Century,” and received federal approval in March 1995. All were designed to increase work incentives and remove roadblocks to independence for families receiving AFDC.
The 1990’s also saw legislation which moved several components out from under the OKDHS umbrella and became independent state agencies--medical services (Oklahoma Health Care Authority), juvenile affairs (Office of Juvenile Affairs), and rehabilitation services (Oklahoma Department of Rehabilitation Services). The teaching hospitals were transferred to a newly created Hospital Trust Authority.
On November 6, 2012 Oklahoma voters passed another state constitutional amendment changing the Department’s governance structure. The amendments abolished the Commission for Human Services and replaced it with citizen advisory panels in the areas of: Aging Services, Developmental Disabilities Services, Children and Family Services, and Administration. This change would also affect the head of the state agency, requiring the director of OKDHS to report to the governor and become a gubernatorial appointee with senate confirmation.
The original constitutional name remains — the Department of Public Welfare — as does the constitutional mandate: “...to promote the general welfare of the people of the State of Oklahoma...for their protection, security, and benefit.”
Although the agency continues to evolve since its creation in 1936, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services’ mission still reflects that original constitutional mandate--to help individuals and families in need help themselves lead safer, healthier, more independent and productive lives.