In rapidly growing Texas, which is home to one in 11 children in the United States, child poverty has continued to increase despite an improving economy, according to a report released Tuesday.
There was a 47 percent increase in the rate of Texas children living in poverty from 2000 to 2011, according to the Kids Count report by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal think tank that advocates for low-income Texans. That was faster than the 18 percent growth rate in the child population in Texas during the same period.
Twenty-seven percent of Texas children were living in poverty in 2011, a rate that put the Lone Star State among the nine worst states.
Poverty is “almost a canary in the coal mine,” said Frances Deviney, Texas Kids Count director at the Center for Public Policy Priorities. “Poverty is not destiny, but it certainly puts kids off on the wrong foot.”
It’s a key measure of child well-being, according to the report, which added that poverty can create “toxic stress” that alters children’s developing brains and bodies and is related to gaps in health and education.
“The fact that our poverty rate is increasing is something that I think is very alarming to those of us who care very much about the health and welfare of children and see the investment in children as really the future of Texas,” said Beth Quill, executive director of Children’s Defense Fund Texas.
Chuck DeVore, vice president of policy at the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank, has said that the poverty rate is not a good measure because it fails to take into account the value of government benefits and regional differences in cost of living.
Texas was one of two states that saw its overall poverty rate drop between 2011 and 2012, according to census data. Still, the state’s rate remained above its pre-recession rate.
Among the reasons Texas’ child poverty rate has grown is that despite the state’s relatively low unemployment rate, it has a high rate of jobs that pay minimum wage or less, Deviney said.
“People are working extremely hard,” she said. “But when you have a family of three, a family of four, what it takes to be able to make basic ends meet, those minimum-wage jobs aren’t cutting it.”
The federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour. Houston is among 100 cities across the country where fast-food workers are planning to walk off their jobs on Thursday to call for $15-an-hour wages, according to strike organizers. Fast-food workers have gone on strike in recent months to seek a pay increase.
The Kids Count report said that the child poverty rate in Texas in 2011 ranged from 9.1 percent in Dallas-area Rockwall County to 48.1 percent in Brooks County in South Texas. Counties with high child poverty rates also included Cameron and Hidalgo in the Rio Grande Valley.
The Food Bank of the Rio Grande Valley has seen that poverty up close. The organization, which works with churches and shelters to distribute items like locally grown watermelons and tomatoes to tens of thousands of people each week, has seen a 40 percent increase since last year in the number of people seeking food, said communications manager Omar Rodriguez.
Those in need of food are often struggling with underemployment, unemployment and medical bills, he said, and the drought has been difficult for those who work in the local agriculture industry.
“You see a lot of households with the breadwinner having two or three jobs,” Rodriguez said.