OPED: In Texas, Everyone Deserves a Fighting Chance

This weekend, we contributed a piece to the Austin American-Statesman’s legislative series. You can read the full oped below, which originally ran in the Statesman on Sunday, Dec. 9:

Sarah Campsey’s children are her world. She’d sacrifice anything to give them the best life she can.

Three years ago, Sarah had to choose between keeping her job and caring for her newborn with severe birth defects. Her third child, Cooper, now age 3, was born with dislocated hips, crisscrossed legs and his knees and feet bent up toward his chest.

“We didn’t know if he’d be able to walk; if there was anything neurologically wrong with his brain,” the Austin mother of three said. Doctors didn’t know “how far he would advance or how much of a normal childhood he would have.”

Sarah and Matt’s decision to care for their child first is a choice all Texas families would make. But Cooper’s condition had severe economic consequences for the family that spiraled them into poverty. Unfortunately, their pathway to financial hardship is not unique. Families can find themselves in poverty just as easily if there is a death in the family, a parent experiences a job loss or a significant downturn in the economy results in reduced hours or pay.

The needs of such families pose a challenge for state government officials as they head into the 2013 legislative session.

Before Cooper was born, Sarah worked the day shift as a nurse. Her husband, Matt Boedeker, worked the night shift at UPS. Their combined incomes earned them enough to live comfortably with their children — they were able to go out to eat once a week, and traveled to Galveston to visit relatives. They could pay rent, cover their utility bills, and not worry about where their next meal would come from. They had a washer and dryer and a bedroom for each child.

Immediately after birth, Cooper needed constant care. His appointments and physical therapy took more of Sarah’s time than she anticipated. Matt also had to take a lot of time off work during Cooper’s surgeries, which reduced their income even more. Soon, Sarah’s maternity leave and paid time off ran out and she was forced to choose between keeping her job, which was the family’s main income, and taking care of her youngest child full-time.

While Cooper’s medical bills are mostly covered through Matt’s employer-based insurance and Medicaid, the co-pays added up fast. Soon after Sarah quit her job, the family’s small amount of savings dried up.

“It was about a month after Cooper was born when I realized we were going to have to start applying for assistance,” Sarah said. “With the loss of my income, basically it was either rent or food.”

Sarah and Matt began applying for various forms of public assistance like food stamps and the food aid program known as Women, Infants and Children to make ends meet and feed their three children. After their rent increased, they were forced to leave their home. They looked for Austin homeless shelters and hotels to move their family to, but in the end, Sarah and their three children moved to New York to live with her parents while Matt stayed in Austin to earn money.

Soon, the Campsey family was accepted into the Children’s Home Initiative, a housing project operated by Foundation Communities in Austin. They moved into a two-bedroom apartment with discounted rent at a complex that offers after-school child care for the oldest kids, a monthly on-site food pantry, financial education classes and other services.

Although the Campsey family has been reunited, they’re still struggling on one income. When Matt was able to put in overtime at work, their income was about $1200 a month or around $14,400 a year — well below the poverty line of $22,891 for a family of five.

In addition to the community-based support they received from Foundation Communities, the food stamp program has helped feed their children and eased some of their worries. It also allows them to put the money Matt makes toward gas, rent or utilities.

“The first time we had to apply for food stamps and assistance it was really hard because we never thought we’d be at this point,” Sarah said. “I guess we are considered living in poverty.”

Sarah and Matt are caught in what feels like an endless cycle.

“This just shows that one thing can happen to a family and it can change everything completely,” Sarah said.

At the Center for Public Policy Priorities, we conduct research and analysis on what Texas families need and the choices we make as a state to support families to move from surviving to thriving.

Our recent research on Texas family budgets shows that given what it costs to live in Austin, and if Matt and Sarah had no help from their family or the community, they would have to make over $60,000 just to cover basic expenses like rent, food, child care, gas and health insurance. That $60,000 does not include extras like Christmas presents, school or sports fees or any emergency savings to protect against future hardship. Recent census data shows that nearly one of every three families in the Austin metro area does not make enough to cover our “no-frills” budgets.

Many Texans are poor not because they don’t work — nearly 80 percent of low-income Texas families work full-time and year round — but because their work pays too little to raise a family out of poverty. Texas has the third-worst rate of jobs that pay at or below minimum wage in the country. And lots of low-wage jobs means lots of jobs without benefits like health insurance or retirement savings that help buffer families from medical crises and plan for the future.

The job of our elected officials is to make sure that every one of us has a fighting chance to realize our fullest potential, pursue our biggest dreams and live a better life.

That job begins and ends by writing a state budget that reflects our priorities, strengthens our communities, supports us when we need it most and builds a vibrant economy. That means working for quality, affordable health care, good jobs and child well-being.

To meet basic needs, the 2013 Legislature must ensure that the parents of children on Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program, as well as other low-income citizen adults, have access to affordable health coverage so they are better able to meet other basic needs like housing and food. Today Medicaid covers over 2.5 million Texas children, but only about 225,000 of their parents. Getting parents health coverage is one of the best things we can do to ensure the economic stability of Texas families.

Second, we also need to give the Texas Department of Insurance the authority to stop unreasonable health insurance increases on families’ premiums, which they currently do not have the power to do. And last, we need to ensure that, whether run by Texas or the feds, Texas’ health insurance exchange (the system required by health reform to help Texans purchase individual health insurance starting in 2014) is user-friendly and family-centered.

The 2013 Legislature also needs to preserve the power of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, formerly known as food stamps) by preserving food choice for families, continuing to make improvements to the way families sign up for assistance and resisting the temptation to impose additional restrictive rules that keep families from receiving the help they need.

And to plan for the future, the 2013 Legislature must start by filling the $5.4 billion funding hole we dug for our public schools. With one of every 11 U.S. kids living in Texas, never truer was the phrase, “So goes Texas, so goes the country.” And our kids cannot lead the rest of the country, or the world, when they are learning in overcrowded classrooms or without 21st century resources. And that means not only filling the hole, but investing heavily in education from pre-K through college and post-secondary job training.

Whether young or old, black, white, or brown, red or blue, Texas is one family. Like it or not, all 25 million of us are this together. And, together, we know we can do big things. But that means rallying around one another, just like a family, because we give each other strength.

On Dec. 13, we will share Sarah and Matt’s story, along with the stories of other Texas families, in a new documentary to air on PBS. “A Fighting Chance” will expose the tough choices these families must make — sacrifices most of us could not imagine. Their stories will expose the harsh reality of poverty and challenge common assumptions about what it takes for families to succeed in Texas.

Sarah and Matt remain hopeful, dreaming of having a house big enough for each of her children to have his or her own room and two cars that function properly.

“I’d love to be in our own home with a backyard for the kids,” she said. “And have air conditioning and not have to worry about daily finances … and just be able to relax a little bit and breathe — take a deep breath.”

At the Center for Public Policy Priorities, we believe in a Texas that offers everyone the chance to compete and succeed in life. We envision a Texas where everyone is healthy, well-educated, and financially secure. We want the best Texas - a proud state that sets the bar nationally by expanding opportunity for all. CPPP is an independent public policy organization that uses data and analysis to advocate for solutions that enable Texans of all backgrounds to reach their full potential. We dare Texas to be the best state for hard-working people and their families.

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