Texas is the second largest state in the United States in terms of population (approximately 24 million people); only California is larger. And while it still retains its traditional image of wide-open spaces, oil fields, and cowboys and ranching, it has since World War II become an urban, industrial state. Indeed, it has three of the ten largest cities in the country (Houston, 4th; San Antonio, 8th; Dallas, 9th; US Census). As Professor Laura Lein of The University of Texas at Austin discusses in the video in the box to the right, poverty in Texas is multifaceted.
Despite its growth and diversified economy, Texas also has had the less fortunate history since 1980 of having a larger percent of its population living in poverty than the overall US average. Briefly stated, Texas uses a measure of poverty employed by the federal government that calculates a yearly dollar figure; if an individual or a family has an income that is less than this figure, then that individual or family is by definition poor. For example, in 2006, a family of three individuals, two of which were under 18 years of age, was considered to be "in poverty" if the family's total income (wages, salaries, etc.) was less than $16, 242. For a family of four with two under age eighteen, the "poverty line" or "poverty threshold" was $20,444. As Francis Deviney of the Center for Public Policy Priorities discusses in the video clip found in the box on the right side of this page, the definition of the poverty line, however, fails to reflect the modern expenditures of most contemporary households.
A graph of poverty rates in the US and Texas shows that every year since 1980 Texas has had a higher poverty rate than the US. One might well ask why this is the case, and we shall address this question and others as we go along.
What else is distinctive or notable about poverty in Texas? One way to answer this question is to ask how Texas ranks with the other fifty states on a variety of indicators. For example, in 2007 Texas ranked second among all the states in the percent of its populace that was poor (that is, only four states had higher rates). The poverty rate for Texas in that year was 16.5%. The only other state that had higher poverty rates was Mississippi (20.1%). It should be pointed out that the four other states in the top five all have much smaller populations than Texas, and all are predominantly rural, as this table illustrates. This fact alone makes Texas distinct; it clearly has the highest poverty rate of any large industrial state.
But Texas also has far greater numbers of poor people than these four other states. Its poor population in absolute numbers (3.934 million people) is larger by far than the combined poor populations of the other four states (3.9 million for Texas compared to 2.13 million for the other four together (US Census Bureau "Income, Earning, and Poverty Data from the 2007 American Community Survey", p. 15). Indeed, California (total population 36.8 million) is the only state with a larger number of poor people (4.67 million) than Texas. The third and fourth largest poverty populations are in New York (2.8 million) and Florida (2.3 million), but all of these states have significantly lower poverty rates (California 12.7%, New York 14.3%, and Florida 12.5%) than Texas. Texas therefore has both a large number of poor people and a high percentage of its population living in poverty. In 2007, Texas ranked ninth in its poverty rate for the elderly; it ranked forty-ninth in the percentage of its adult population with a high school diploma; and it ranked first, at 24.4 %, in the percent of its populace with no health insurance.
However, some of Texas' poverty characteristics are similar to the United States overall. For instance, poverty in Texas is not evenly distributed by race, nor is this the case in any state, as the figures in these charts and graphs illustrate. Texas is now close to being what is referred to as a majority-minority state, which means that the two largest racial minority groups in the state (African-Americans and Hispanics) (are these the proper labels?) will within the next few years together constitute a majority of the of the state's population. According to 2007 US census data from the American Community Survey, 46.5% of Texas' population is white/Anglo, 11% is African-American, and 35.2% is Hispanic. Yet the distribution of poverty by race is no way resembles this distribution. Of the Anglo population, 8.4% is poor, while 23.8% of the African-American and 24.8% of the Hispanic populations are poor. In other words, the rate of poverty among the two minority groups is three times greater than among the Anglo population .
But the distribution of poverty by race in Texas can be looked at in another way. If we take the entire poor population of Texas (some 3.9 million people), how are they divided up by race? 23.8% of all poor Texans are Anglo, and 15.8% are African-American, but well over half (53%) are Hispanic.
How else are poor Texans distributed within the state? As noted above, Texas is now an urban state; as of 2007, 86% of the population lives within a metropolitan statistical area (MSA). An MSA must have a at least one urbanized area of 50,000 or more inhabitants. Texas, in other words, has a higher rate of poverty for its population as a whole than has the US, which is a distinctive characteristic. It is also a large, urban, industrial state, but it has had poverty rates over the years similar to much smaller rural states, another unique characteristic. But that fact that poverty is unevenly distributed across its major racial groupings is not unusual.
There is another aspect of poverty in Texas that is distinctive, and that concerns the very poorest Texans. In 2005, of the thousands of counties in the entire United States, the two absolutely poorest (with populations in excess of 250,000) in terms of median household income (the median income is defined as the half-way point in a distribution - that is, half the households were higher and half were lower) and percentage of population counted as poor were both along the Texas-Mexico border - Cameron County and Hidalgo County. Cameron County, whose county seat is Brownsville, had in 2005 a median household income of $24,501; Cameron Country (county seat McAllen) was virtually the same ($24.684) .
In order to grasp how poorly off these counties are, the median household income in 2005 for Texas was $42,139 and for the United States overall $46,242. Or another comparison: Cameron and Hidalgo were the only two counties in the United States with median household incomes under $25,000; one other nationally (Bronx NY) was under $30,000 ($29, 228), meaning that these two poorest counties were indeed poor. Cameron and Hidalgo counties also had the highest poverty rates of any counties in the United States; each had a rate of about 41%. Again, for comparison's sake, El Paso had a poverty rate of 29%. Finally, of the ten poorest counties in the United States, Texas had El Paso (sixth) and Lubbock (tenth) in addition to Cameron and Hidalgo. Texas was thus the only state to have more than one of the poorest ten counties nation-wide, and it had four. This table illustrates Texas's predominance among the ten poorest counties in the United States.
It may also be of interest to know that by one widely-used standard Texas has the poorest place in the United States. Cameron Park (in Cameron County) is a colonia (see discussion below) that dates back to 1968. Naming the poorest place in the United States depends heavily on population; after all, there are some very small towns scattered across the country of a dozen or so inhabitants that are extremely poor. But if we take as a definition of a "place" any settlement that has at least a thousand households, then Cameron Park was in 2005 the poorest place in the United States. Its 5900 or so inhabitants had a median individual income of $4100; the median household income was $17,000. As noted earlier, Cameron County, the poorest county in the United States, had a median household income of $24,500, meaning that Cameron Park's median income was only two thirds that of the county - and Cameron County is the poorest county in the country. In Texas in 2005, median household income was $42,000. 60% of Cameron Park lived below the poverty line; 20% of its adult population had a high school degree (compared to Texas average of 72%).
There are dozens of additional ways to think about poverty in Texas and to compare Texas with the United States as a whole - education, child care, health insurance, health care and health disparities, housing, access to state services, ad so forth and so on. Rather than examine each of these facets of poverty here, we shall wait until Section 5, which discusses poverty policies in Texas.