Census Shows Rise in State Poverty

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Last month’s U.S. Census Bureau report provided a grim view of the worsening state of poverty in America, which is at its highest level since 1993. The situation in Texas is even more troubling—the poverty level is higher and rising faster than the national rate.

A new round of census data from the American Community Survey, which focuses on metropolitan areas with at least 65,000 people, provides a more detailed picture of poverty in the Lone Star State, and how it measures up nationally. Texas is home to four of the five poorest metropolitan areas in the nation. Bryan-College Station, Laredo, McAllen and Brownsville have poverty rates ranging from 30-36 percent. A combination of historically higher unemployment rates than the rest of the state, along with an abundance of low-wage jobs, has likely led to these areas being especially hard hit, said Frances Deviney, a researcher with the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP). The nonprofit organization is analyzing the impact of the recession on poverty in Texas.

In 2010, 17.9 percent, or 4.4 million Texans, were living in poverty, compared to the national rate of 15.3 percent. (The Census Bureau defines poverty as a family of four living on $22,113 or less per year.) The poverty rate has declined for Texans 65 years and older. But for children and working-age Texans, poverty rose to 15.6 percent, an upward trend that has continued throughout the recession. Child poverty in Texas remains at dramatic highs, with more than one of every four children in the state, or 25.7 percent, now living in poverty, according to the center’s analysis. 

The state’s fastest-growing population—Hispanics—is growing poorer at a disproportionate rate. Poverty is rising faster among Hispanic Texans than among non-Hispanics. This trend is tied to education. Between 2008 and 2010, poverty remained relatively low among college-educated Texans, but residents with a high-school diploma or less were increasingly likely to slip into poverty. Hispanics are statistically more likely to drop out of high school, and subsequently more likely to live in poverty, Deviney said.

This widening poverty gap based on educational attainment has particular resonance in the wake of this year’s funding cuts to education. “Lower educational outcomes mean higher poverty, both for the individuals and the state as a whole,” Deviney said.

Adding to this educational disadvantage is the disproportionate rate at which low-wage Hispanic workers have lost their jobs during the recession. “Paradoxically, low-income Hispanics generally have much higher work rates than other lower-income groups, and thus they are more sensitive to the recession and loss of work that accompanies a recession,” said Cynthia Osborne, associate professor of public affairs at the University of Texas at Austin’s LBJ School of Public Affairs. “This group will be hard hit by things like declines in construction, especially.”

Widespread unemployment and lack of health insurance have nudged more families below the poverty line throughout the nation. Texas is no exception. In contrast to Gov. Rick Perry’s Texas jobs “miracle,” unemployment in the state has nearly doubled during the recession, rising from 4.4 percent in December 2007 to 8.5 percent in August 2011, according to CPPP. Although the number of Texans without health insurance declined from 2009 to 2010, the new census data show Texas still has the highest uninsured rate in the nation, at 24.6 percent.

Rising poverty levels are troubling enough, but Osborne noted that 40 percent of Texans are at risk of falling into poverty. More than 9.7 million people live on twice the federal poverty threshold, or $44,226 or less per year for a family of four. “These individuals and families are very sensitive to unemployment or changes in their health status,” Osborne said. “They have very few resources to fall back on, and are at high risk of falling into poverty when they lose their job or have a change in health status.”

These alarming figures are unlikely to get much attention from Perry on the campaign trail, but they are a sad and glaring truth about living in Texas. Unemployment and lack of health insurance, along with other obstacles, have made poverty a reality—not just a statistic—for too many Texans.