Bartlesville: A Mixture of Stability and Change

I began teaching in Bartlesville 22 years ago, moving here at age 23 for my first teaching position, one I’ve yet to relinquish. In many ways Bartlesville has changed little over those decades, but in other ways changes are quite noticeable. I was prompted to write this post both by my own anecdotal impressions and a community profile from the regional United Way. I’ll throw in interesting charts from their report throughout; you can click them to enlarge.

When I moved here after growing up in the sprawling million-person metropolis of the Oklahoma City area, I was struck by how small a town of 35,000 could seem. I was no longer anonymous; when old friends visit me here they comment on how all around town people know me by name, something you just don’t see in a huge city. For years I regularly drove to Tulsa each Saturday to eat out and see movies. The restaurants are naturally more varied and better in the big city – sadly for me, Bartlesville cannot attract an El Chico. And I didn’t enjoy going with a friend to the movies in Bartlesville where I found myself observed by my students and quizzed by them the next week about the person I’d been seen with. Their curiosity was natural, but I wanted more privacy.

Bartlesville's population trend is flat as a prairie

Bartlesville has only grown to 36,000 as of the 2010 census and still has that small town feel. But I’ve grown to like the advantages of living in a town small enough that you can easily grasp what is going on and even play a meaningful part in town life. In my case I’m extensively involved in school district planning thanks to my track record of achievement, elected office in the teacher’s union, and the openness of our administration. I don’t want to disappear into a big city and in recent years I’ve switched my Saturdays from Tulsa trips to hiking treks. While that certainly has not saved me any gas and it means I see friends in Tulsa less often, it keeps me in better physical and mental shape to spend hours walking in the great outdoors rather than strolling idly through Tulsa’s shopping malls.

Almost 2/3 of the people in our region north of Tulsa have what I consider a long commute

I certainly prefer living here to living in Owasso, although the latter is growing madly thanks to its close proximity to Tulsa and boasts better dining and shopping. Mind you, I don’t cook to any meaningful extent, so restaurant dining is a big deal to me. I see how ConocoPhillips folks moving up from Houston sometimes live in Owasso and gladly suffer what seems to them a minor commute. But I’d hate living in Owasso because, like so many bedroom communities around big cities, it lacks a soul. There is no “there” there; it feels like a strip-mall and big-box store shopping district surrounded by houses, lacking the central downtown Bartlesville has with its large corporate towers, Community Center, and historic structures. I like living in a place with some history.

One reason Bartlesville has not grown much in 20+ years is that Phillips Petroleum was the big employer in town and it kept downsizing the local operations until finally merging with Conoco in 2002. The city managed to hold its own, diversifying with smaller employers, but the merger a decade ago shifted many high-income and highly educated executives and engineers to Houston when the refining, wholesale marketing, and exploration and production divisions shifted way down south. Up here we now have more accountants, human resources, and information technology folks, although thus far we still have the research center and that certainly provides community support for my field of science education.

17.5% of the folks in Washington County are 65+

But over the past decade the typical Bartian has become older and poorer. I’ve always noticed how many more retirees and fewer college-age people there are in Bartlesville because we only have a couple of small institutions of higher education. But the United Way data quantifies that in Washington County 17.5% of the population is 65+ while the percentage in Tulsa County is only 12.1%.

Oklahoma is losing young adults

Overall, Oklahoma is shedding folks who are between 34 and 47, and this cripples our economic power and tax revenues. Hence the importance of the young professionals groups here and in Tulsa who seek to improve the environment for their peers and thus staunch the flow, helping young adults have a happier stay in our state so they remain with us as they mature into their late thirties and early forties.

The students in the corridors at the school where I teach are also noticeably poorer in dress, language, and behavior, showing the impact of increasing poverty and broken homes. I have fewer students in physics than ever before and a smaller percentage of my student are attending selective universities.

Over half the elementary school children in Bartlesville qualify for a free or reduced lunch

One clear indicator at school of poverty levels is the number of students who qualify for a free-or-reduced lunch. The rate has more than doubled in our district since I came here. Now over half of our elementary school students qualify.

Fewer people are married

The United Way’s profile shows the changes in the homes those children grow up in. The percentage of folks in Washington County who were 15 years or older and married plummeted from 62% in 2000 to 55% in 2009. I’m part of the problem, of course: my “never married” group has risen from 18% to 23% in that time.

Typical families vary by race

But I don’t have any children, and it is interesting to note how children of different races often grow up in very different families. Notice how much more likely an Asian American child in Washington County is to grow up in a married household (85%) than an African American child (51%), with over 40% of African American children growing up in a household headed by a female. But Hispanic families fall into almost identical category percentages as Caucasians.

Female-headed households are way up

Overall, the percentage of households with children headed by only a female has exploded since I came to town, rising from 14% to 24%.

More teenagers are giving birth

The percentage of teenagers giving birth in Washington County rose from 10% in 1980 to 15% in 2008.

When I was in high school, having a child out of wedlock and teen pregnancy were shameful occurrences. There’s a reason the term bastard became a pejorative – the value society placed on wedlock for a child’s upbringing (and for legal inheritances). That stigma is fading, but so is that of teen pregnancy. Some single teenage mothers celebrate their pregnancy and their babies, even though the statistics on the future for them and their children are horrifying.

There are more and more single moms

In Washington County, the percentage of women giving birth who were single has risen from 6% in 1980 to 38% in 2008. Egads!

Look at the median income for female-headed households

Take a look at the very low income level for female-headed households.

The middle class is shrinking at both ends

Across our nation the era after World War II saw the immense growth of the middle class, but we are now in a long-term trend where the middle class is shrinking and the gap keeps growing between the very rich and the very poor.

Bartlesville, a city of workers

The Great Recession we have lived through in recent years is shown in rising unemployment here in Bartlesville, but happily the overall rate remains low and has not even reached the rates we saw in the recession of the early 1990s.

1/3 of Oklahoma are obese

One thing I find particularly striking is how fat Oklahomans have become. When I hike in Colorado or hike or walk city streets in the Pacific Northwest, people are much thinner and healthier. Our whole culture is eating improperly and not getting enough exercise, but Oklahomans are worse off in part due to their poverty. The poor buy cheap processed food which is less nutritious and higher in calories, and easier to prepare, than more expensive fruits and vegetables and the various ingredients needed for healthier cooking, which also takes more time and is a greater relative burden for the stressed-out working poor.

I still like living here in Bartlesville, which continues to win awards as a great low-cost place to live with a good quality of life compared to many other places in our region. But the trends are worrisome. These problems are not insurmountable, but they are not going to be addressed when our state’s voters elect politicians who keep cutting not only taxes but also overburdened state services. Oklahomans have done more with less for years, but there is a limit.

About Granger Meador

I enjoy day hikes, photography, podcasts, reading, web design, and technology. My wife Wendy and I work in the Bartlesville Public Schools in northeast Oklahoma, but this blog is outside the scope of our employment.
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11 Responses to Bartlesville: A Mixture of Stability and Change

  1. Russell Vaclaw says:

    Granger, thank you so much for making this information available. What an eye opener! I realize the time and effort you must have put into this. It is very helpful to what we do in Court on a daily basis. I would speculate, based on your research and based on what I have seen in only the short past 4 1/2 years on the bench, that there is a direct correlation between what you have shown in your research and the increase in crime. When I took office in 2007, we were averaging around 90 people in our jail. Now we have anywhere between 120-130 in custody. There are other factors to consider of course, but I fear, based upon your research, where we will be in Bartlesville in just 10 years if these things remain the same. Again, thank you.

    • gmeador says:

      Thanks but I should note that the United Way commissioned the report that did all of the heavy lifting. I just edited it to extract key points and throw in my own anecdotal observations. It is a fascinating data set!

  2. Kelly says:

    What a wonderful perspective and useful look at data! I am proud to be an ex-Bartian. It is a great place to grow up although the changes mentioned are tough to combat.
    I am in now in the 34-47 age category & have settled in the Northwest to raise my family. I still find great joy in living in a small community (actually one that makes Bville seem BIG).
    Mr. Meador, I commend you for remaining in Oklahoma for so long & for your dedication to education. I would be glad to put a plug in for you with the school board up here if you ever feel like switching gears.

  3. alissads says:

    The decline of Bartlesville into poverty has been discussed in my family for some years now. It’s interesting to see it all in one post. I’m forwarding it on to some of them.

    I’ve also appreciated Bartlesville for all of the neat things it has, especially now when I live in what is essentially a suburb of Little Rock. But there’s not really much left there for anyone from there. I go back now, and it all seems so much worse. I’m glad the downtown is finally picking up though. I just worry Bartlesville will just become a larger version of Dewey in the next twenty years.

    For the life of me, during high school, I could not understand why all of those girls were not only getting pregnant, but keeping them and being really happy about having babies in high school. It made sense after a lot of things I studied last semester in my coursework on educational anthropology. Of what I’ve studied…For the most part, teenage pregnancy is a symptom of poverty and academic failure rather than just its cause. If you don’t see hope in your future in terms of school and you don’t feel like you are respected, a baby makes you an adult and provides you with unconditional love. That’s why they’re so proud of having babies, because they don’t feel like they can take pride in anything else in their lives. Also, the abstinence-only education thing we love in Bartlesville. There’s a correlation between strongly believing in traditional gender roles (which that curriculum promotes indirectly) and becoming a teenage mother. I remember many of the girls who had babies in high school were the more conservative girls I knew, even strong supporters of abstinence-only.

    It only struck me when I came to a liberal arts college and then observed (through facebook) the people I grew up with how poor the town really is. No one here went to school with nearly as many pregnant teenagers as I did (except those from very poor, rural Arkansas towns…and even then), and most of my friends’ peers actually left their hometowns after high school. I used to think I went to a really good high school (and obviously, we have many excellent teachers, but I overestimated how much the community valued the school) until I came here. Not because I came to college not knowing things, but because I seem to be the only person who has stories of anything being bad.

    Bartlesville is a very interesting place. I just hope something stops it from becoming just another small town in Oklahoma.

  4. Kim Goss says:

    Thank you for putting this in perspective for us!

  5. 'Becca says:

    Hi, Mr. Meador! I was in the Class of 1991. My parents sent me the link to your post. Thanks for this interesting round-up of the data!

    I’m a social science data manager now, as well as an unmarried but partnered mother, and on both grounds I take issue with a few of your interpretations:

    Being unmarried and being a teenager are different things; you talk about them as if they’re the same. Being unmarried also does not mean being single, in terms of either romantic status or who’s in the household. Since 1980 there’s been little change in the outcomes for teen parents, which are, as you say, pretty dismal. Teen pregnancy rates also have been relatively stable nationwide, despite the disturbing increase in Oklahoma.

    But in those same 30 years, there have been big changes in the demographics of unmarried parents, which are the main reason that group has grown. These days, 41% of babies born to unmarried mothers have their fathers living in the home, and 77% of their mothers are 20 or older, with 17% being 30 or older. My son has lived all his life with both parents–unlike several of his kindergarten classmates whose parents were married but have now divorced.

    There’s a reason the term bastard became a pejorative.
    What is that reason? Why is it that parental marital status should give the CHILD a derogatory label? Why do you think a baby’s birth should not be celebrated if his mother is a teenager?

    Take a look at the very low income level for female-headed households.
    Of course it is lower than married-couple households. The majority of female-headed households are headed by single women (not lesbian couples or a mother and grandmother who both have jobs), and of course it makes sense that one adult earns less than two adults. In married couples where one is the breadwinner while the other stays home, a factor in their choosing that lifestyle is that the breadwinner’s salary is sufficient to support the family; if it wasn’t, the other party would be more likely to get a job, whereas single people do not have that flexibility.

    You speak of it as if all single parents are mothers and fathers have nothing to do with it, but almost 6% of children, and 9% of African-American children, live in a male-headed household.

    However, it wouldn’t be fair to compare the incomes of female- and male-headed households with children as if it reflects the competence of the parents. Single fathers are mostly those who divorce when their income and parental interest are high enough that they get custody, whereas mothers wind up with custody by default, not just when they are well-qualified. Furthermore, single mothers are more likely than single fathers to stay home with children (possibly receiving welfare benefits, some of which are not available to fathers) rather than earning money to pay for childcare. Full-time childcare costs about $10K/year/kid, so when you subtract that from the male-headed households, they may not be coming out ahead.

    Looking at the other side of your graph, the households without children, in Bartlesville and the region (though not in Oklahoma as a whole) MALE-headed households earn LESS. What we are seeing here is not that mothers spontaneously produce children all by themselves and fail to support them in style, but that raising children reduces women’s earning power but they do it anyway, whereas many fathers do not live with their children, and more affluent fathers are more likely to get custody.

    The roles of mothers and fathers, both in financial support of the children and in parental involvement, are more complex than we can see from figures on who lives in the home and what is their income. (I’m not sure if your figures include child support as income for the person who received it or the person who paid it.)

    I work with data on young men’s criminal activity. It is clear that those who grew up in a household of one adult and multiple children are at a disadvantage, as are those who grew up with no male adult consistently involved in their lives, those who grew up in poverty, and (this is one of our most robust findings) those whose primary caretaker felt stressed-out. But it’s also very interesting seeing the data now that our participants are in their 30s and many are fathers. Most aspire to being responsible fathers and cite their children among the most important reasons for trying to improve themselves, but with their low economic status and lack of role models, they’re not doing so well. There’s very little social support for fathers compared to mothers, and in particular our culture seems to believe that noncustodial fathers should shut up and pay the bills and accept that the mother is the “real” parent. This needs to change.

    Anyway, I don’t mean to pick on you! It’s very interesting to hear how the changes in B’ville have been noticeable in the high school halls. I’m intrigued by the change in behavior that you see as also a sign of poverty–what is that change like?

  6. gmeador says:

    Hi, Becca. The above post cherry-picked parts of the larger data set from the United Way community profile – those which I found the most interesting. The full data set goes beyond the categories I selected and includes some of the variations and details you speak of.

    As for unmarried teenage parents, I strongly disapprove of anyone giving birth to or fathering a child who is not himself or herself self-sufficient or self-sufficient in a pair bond, which includes the establishment of sufficient financial security to cope well with temporary unemployment. That disapproval arises from my belief that people have a moral obligation to be able to provide for themselves and their children and not shift those burdens onto society except when events outside of their control make it a true necessity. That belief system is one of the reasons I teach: to help people become self-sufficient. I consider school-age children to not be self-sufficient, and thus personally believe that celebration of school-age parenthood is a moral wrong. And it is my experience that most teenagers are not developmentally sophisticated enough to fully segregate the celebration of a baby for his or her own sake from the celebration of parenthood. Others are of course free to disagree with me.

    As for hallway behavior, the less I say the better. I’d be too blunt and not politically correct enough for a public post.

  7. 'Becca says:

    I fully agree that teenagers should not become parents because, on the average, they are not good at it and do not have sufficient resources. My point was that this is because of their age, not their marital status. The only way marriage can benefit teen parents is ***if*** it makes the father stick with his children when he otherwise would not.

    I also fully agree that people should be financially secure before having children. There is a correlation between marriage and financial stability because people with better finances are more likely to marry, not because marriage makes people better earners or money managers. So a drop in marriage rates is nothing to worry about where financial security is concerned. However, I think the overall financial literacy of Americans is a very serious problem, one which teachers can help address. (I don’t know how it connects to physics, but maybe you can think of something!)

    Your mention of “sufficient financial security to cope well with temporary unemployment” reminds me to note that figures on annual income don’t take into account how much savings people have. While it is a sad fact that most Americans (of any age or marital status) don’t much bother with savings, some do. My family is right now living on my income while my partner is unemployed. For the occasional big expense, I can dip into my savings, equivalent to about 3 years of my income. One reason I have so much saved is that I always planned to work part-time for a while after having a baby. I did do that, but my partner’s income at that time easily supported all of us, so we barely touched the savings. It took some time to save that money. It took some time for him to find that well-paid job. It didn’t require marriage.

    That’s why I think there is nothing to be gained for anyone from labeling my son a bastard and thinking he isn’t as good as others. Even to the extent that children are shaped by their parents’ demographics, he’s in very good shape compared to a child with married 16-year-old parents.

  8. gmeador says:

    Ah – I see what you are getting at. Of course it is wrong for an innocent child to bear a label which carries a negative connotation over which he or she has no control. My point in the post, one which I did not clearly express, was that the term ‘bastard’ became a pejorative over time because of the importance people once attached to children being born in wedlock. Now that societal trend is fading, yet people who might have little objection to a child born out of wedlock still use the term as a dire insult. (I’ve edited the post, trying to clarify my meaning.)

    We see the same thing with ‘retardation’, which was originally a broader and less hurtful euphemism for the older and more specific clinical terms of ‘idiot’ and ‘imbecile’ and ‘moron’ – all of which became pejoratives. But over time ‘retard’ also became a pejorative and thus those who deal with the mentally handicapped search for new terminology.

  9. Cleonne Smith says:

    Hi Granger, I taught with you a few years at B’ville High, but mosly at Sooner. George McCourt forwarded your blog to me. Good job. I arrived in Bartlesville in 1966 from New York state when my newly PhDed husband went to work at the research center. Bartlesville was so different then. Very prosperous and more bigoted than I realized. I survived and raised 5 children which is amazing for a UW-Madison grad. I am now on a river in Northern Wisconsin with pop. 300. You think Bartlesville is small??? Greet everyone for me. Thanks.

  10. Pingback: A change is gonna come | MEADOR.ORG

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