Like taking your temperature, reporting the annual poverty rate is a broad measure of how economically healthy Texas families are. This week’s U.S. Census release showed a small but significant decrease in Texas’ poverty rate of less than one percentage point. The 2013 poverty rate is 17.5 percent, or 4.5 million Texans living in poverty, down from 17.9 percent in 2012.
The Census Bureau uses the Poverty Thresholds to determine whether individuals within a household should be counted as living in poverty. For example, for a family of three to officially be considered living in poverty, their household income must be less than $18,769 a year. Poverty rates vary widely within Texas. The Midland metro area has a poverty rate of 9 percent, while the McAllen metro area has a poverty rate of 34 percent. The three poorest metro areas in the country are in Texas: McAllen, Brownsville and Laredo.
Family poverty also varies widely by family type in Texas. One in five families with children lives in poverty. The poverty rate is more than double that, 43 percent, for families with children headed by single women. Racial disparities show the persistent effect of barriers to economic opportunity. In families with a Hispanic or Latino head of household, 23 percent live in poverty, compared to 21 percent of families headed by African-American adults, and 12 percent of families headed by a white adult.
What can we do about poverty? Currently Texas law prohibits cities and counties from setting their own minimum wages higher than the official state wage. In the short term, allowing local control of minimum wage floors could at the very least alleviate the worst effects of poverty while reducing dependence on the public safety net. As our Family Budgets tool shows, the income it takes to make ends meet in Texas varies widely by location, and is far above the minimum wage.
We can also protect families from falling into or deeper into poverty. Health insurance for low-income families is one way to guard against financial holes.
The best long-term solution remains equipping workers with the education and skills necessary to get careers that will lift families out of poverty. Twenty-nine percent of Texas adults without a high school diploma live in poverty, compared to 10 percent of adults with an associate’s degree and 4 percent of adults with a bachelor’s degree.
We’ve all heard stories about growing cities in Texas (and complaints about increased traffic) and the energy boom. But the numbers show that the story of Texas as a whole is one of stagnation. We shouldn’t accept this is the best we can do.