Texas is fairly described as a state for the young and hungry. Among US states, it has the 2nd lowest average age, and the 2nd largest under-18 population. It also has among the highest rates of child poverty and food insecurity.
Frequently trotted out as a national exemplar of conservatism, Texas does indeed have a small state government, and has seen excellent economic growth since the Great Recession. But prosperity is not shared – Texas also has one of the worst rates of income inequality, the country’s highest fraction of minimum-wage and sub-minimum wage workers – and is afflicted by social ills at rates typical of much poorer states.
We begin with poverty – Texas has the 5th highest rate in the country, which is striking because Texas is not an especially poor state. The states near Texas in poverty rankings – Mississippi, Louisiana, Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma, West Virgina – are all among the bottom 10 states for median household income and per capita income, so their poverty rates are not surprising. Texas is the odd man out, ranking 25th and 30th in those same income measures. While the other 7 states are very poor by any measure, Texas is a middle-income state that has a lot of poor people because its income in unequally distributed.
With its tiny state government – ranking near the bottom for both per capita tax collection and public spending – Texas does little to ameliorate the plight of its many poor. Texas isnt even willing to spend OTHER PEOPLES’ money to help them! Of the state’s 5 million uninsured, fully 1.5 million of them would be insured, if only Texas signed on to Medicaid Expansion, the cost of which would be borne by the Federal Government. Texas declined.
Texans’ health plight only begins with its national-worst rate of health insurance coverage, and its second-worst rate of children’s health insurance coverage. Texas teenagers have the 3rd highest pregnancy rate and the 3rd highest birth rate. Texas children are in the bottom 10 for food insecurity. Life expectancy is in the bottom half of US states.
Remarkably, Texas is the only state in which workers’ compensation is not mandatory – employers are free to opt out – and about 40% do, leaving injured employees to fend for themselves. As you might expect, Texas has among the worst records for workplace injuries and fatalities. When a fertilizer plant blew up a year ago, killing 15 people and injuring 150 more, we learned that Texas has no state fire code. Neither was there a county code where the plant was situated.
While crime has dropped in recent years, Texas is among the nation’s top 5 for incarceration rates, and has the second highest execution rate. Some conservatives point out that if Texas were its own country, it’s economy would rank 14th in the world, just ahead of South Korea. They rarely mention that if Texas were its own country, it would rank 8th in executions – just ahead of North Korea.
Environmentally, Texas has some of the worst air quality in the US, with Houston and Dallas among the 10 worst cities for ozone pollution. Texas coal- and oil-fired electric plants release more CO2 than the next two largest states combined. Rick Perry has come a long way since working for Al Gore’s 1988 presidential campaign – as Texas Governor, he’s slashed the state environmental protection budget, and sued the EPA to prevent it from regulating greenhouse gas emissions.
A few factors advantaged Texas relative to the rest of the US since the Great Recession hit in 2007. Because Texas experienced a smaller run-up in housing prices, the housing crisis left the state with a relatively small fraction of distressed properties. Also, the high, sustained price of oil over the past several years has brought windfalls to oil producers, and rescued the state from the huge budget deficits it was facing. Texas rates of unemployment – good for about 17th best in the US, about 1 pct. pt. better than the national average – fail to convey that Texas jobs come in quantity, not quality, with the largest fraction of minimum wage and sub-minimum wage workers in the country.
And so people should take notice of Texas – as a cautionary tale. From extreme inequality, to the sad state of its children, to its miserable environmental record, to a disregard for workers and workplace safety – what prosperity Texas has recently seen has been enjoyed by the few, amidst widespread poverty, and the swelling ranks of the working poor.