AUSTIN –– State leaders like to brag about Texas' fast growing economy and low unemployment, but rarely do they mention the high poverty rate and so far they don't appear inclined to pass any new laws to deal with it.
The unemployment rate and the creation of new jobs are the statistics most often cited by Gov. Rick Perry to brag on Texas, and unemployment is among the lowest in the country at 6.2 percent. That's well below the national average of 7.7 percent.
Perry also uses the Texas Enterprise Fund and the Emerging Technology Funds to encourage employers to relocate to Texas and create new jobs in the state, adding hundreds of jobs every year. Employment, though, is not the only measure of economic prosperity. There is the question of quality of life.
The number of Texans living in poverty rose for a third consecutive year in 2011, adding more than 214,000 people to total 4.6 million. That's 18.5 percent of the population, 3 percent higher than the nation as a whole, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
By comparison, New Hampshire had the lowest proportion of people living in poverty, with 8.8 percent, and Mississippi the highest, 22.6 percent. The metropolitan areas in the United States with the first and third highest proportions of poor people are in Texas, with McAllen-Edinburgh at 37.7 percent and El Paso at 24.7 percent.
These are two of the fastest-growing parts of Texas, and places where Republicans need to do better to hold onto power in the future. While the poverty rate did rise with the Great Recession,
Texas weathered the downturn better than most states and ranked high in poverty even in the best economic times. In 2007, the poverty rate was 16.5 percent, the second highest in the nation that year. Since 2000, the rate has consistently been above 15 percent, and 4 percent higher than the national average.
The two biggest predictors of poverty are poor education and chronic health problems. Only about 80 percent of Texans have a high school diploma, the second lowest in the country, and Texas has the highest number of uninsured citizens.
Politicians of all stripes decry the high poverty rate in a Texas, but what differs is how to deal with it. Republicans hold every statewide elected office, control both houses of the Legislature and Perry's appointees direct every state agency.
Perry's oft-repeated formula for economic growth is low taxes, few regulations and limited lawsuits. Going into the legislative session that begins Jan. 8, he has promised to limit state spending to less than population growth plus inflation.
To help the poor and unemployed, he has proposed requiring drug testing as a condition for some people to receive welfare benefits, to make sure they are employable.
"Being on drugs makes it much harder to begin the journey to independence, which only assures individuals remain stuck in the terrible cycle of drug abuse, desperation and poverty," Perry said last month. "Extending taxpayer-funded benefits while ignoring a behavior that could make it virtually impossible for someone to enter the workforce or finish school, sends them down the road to a much bleaker future."
Democrats are pushing for state government to provide services they believe will help people move out of poverty, including restoring $5.4 billion cut from the public school budget and nearly $1 billion cut from higher education.
Democrats also want the state to expand Medicaid to provide 1.5 million Texans with health insurance at a minimal cost to the state through 2020. Most Democrats fiercely oppose the drug testing proposal.
"To automatically assume that a single mother, a recently unemployed veteran, or a teacher who lost his or her job because of Governor Perry's budget cuts is a drug user is shameful," state Rep. Trey Martinez Fischer, D-San Antonio, said. "When a family is in crisis, we have a moral obligation to provide assistance as soon as possible."
The drug test bill, SB-11, serves as a useful analogy for the differences in approach going into the session, with Republicans placing the emphasis on personal responsibility, and Democrats belief that government plays a role in helping Texans escape poverty.
Perry and Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst have called the incoming Republican-controlled Legislature one of the most conservative in the Texas history, but parents across the state are angry about education cuts and many of the state's most powerful health care lobby groups would like to see Medicaid expanded. The outcome of the debate how to best to fight poverty is far from decided.