NewsLocal News


Living in poverty amid pandemic in Tulsa County

How the economy is really doing
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jul 27, 2020
and last updated 2020-08-03 11:31:23-04

TULSA, Okla. — Global poverty is expected to rise due to the pandemic and push an estimated 71 million people into extreme poverty.

That's according to a study published by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs on July 7.

In Oklahoma, thousands of people are feeling the economic blow, whether it's losing a job or needing food assistance.

One Tulsa family is surviving financially thanks to the help from government-run programs.

"We spend it on stuff that's going to keep our family healthy and is going to help nourish us," shared Kristina Zelenski about the benefits she and her family receive each month.

The Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP) is available to low-income families.

Since the coronavirus outbreak, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services (OKDHS) saw applications more than double for SNAP benefits.

In February of this year, more than $65 million was distributed in the nutrition program, whereas in May, the number increased to more than $103 million, according to Casey White from OKDHS.

For the Zelenskis, the benefits are much needed during the pandemic to feed their family of seven: mother, father and five children. There will also be another mouth to feed come October when Kristina gives birth to her sixth child.

"This is the way the life is right now," said Paul Zelenski, Kristina's husband.

He helps take care of the children at home, while he waits for aviation school to resume.

"I got to a point where I was ready to take the next test, and then school shut down," explained Paul.

He completed three years but needs a lot more hours to become an airline pilot. While he waits for school to reopen, Kristina is the family's sole income provider.

"We don’t feel like we’re in poverty, but by all government standards and government regulations, they consider us we are," said Kristina.

They're not alone. About 14% of people living in Tulsa County live in poverty, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For a family of seven with five children under the age of 18, living in poverty means earning about $38,262 a year.

Currently, Kristina's temporary job pays $17 an hour to stretch it for their family.

"We’d love to support our local businesses, but that’s just not in the budget," said Kristina.

In addition to SNAP benefits, the family qualifies for the Women, Infants and Children (WIC) supplemental nutrition program for income-eligible women.

According to Rob Crissinger from the Oklahoma State Department of Health, WIC has served about 2,000 more participants each month since March than from a year ago.

For Paul and Kristina, without these programs, they wouldn't be able to feed their family.

Food assistance is the biggest need across communities in Green Country during the pandemic.

"Since the middle of March when were were activated by the state of Oklahoma to be the place for people to call, we immediately saw a 600% surge in calls to our 211 call center," said Pam Ballard, the CEO of the Community Service Council.

It even hit those who were food secure before and are now at risk of poverty and hunger.

"It's really just been so heartbreaking to hear those people who have called in and said, 'I never thought it would be me,'" said Ballard.

The Zelenskis hope this is just a temporary setback.

"Whether it’s this household that’s had a hard time, whether it’s the city that’s had a hard time, whether that’s the country that’s had a hard time, there’s going to be obstacles thrown your way, you overcome them," said Paul.

To find out more about government resources available for those struggling financially, take a look below: