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Helping the hungry of Montgomery County

I have three things to say about this.

Though many are familiar with [Montgomery County]’s growth, thanks to the wealth of The Woodlands and the coming Exxon corporate campus just down Interstate 45, fewer see the poverty and hunger dispersed across the suburban and rural communities.

School officials see it. Over the past decade, every district in the county has seen an increase in the percentage of students designated “economically disadvantaged,” according to the Texas Education Agency.

Last month, meanwhile, the Montgomery County Food Bank opened a new center, boosting its capacity from 220,000 pounds of food to 42 million pounds. The large increase was necessary to meet a rising need from the community that’s being driven in large part by an influx of low-paying service jobs that coincide with the boom, said Rodney Dickerson, the food bank’s president.

In 2013, the food bank served 25,000 to 30,000 individuals per month. This year, the number rose to 40,000 to 45,000 per month.

“The challenge is that people in Montgomery County don’t really see the poverty because they’re pockets that are hidden,” said Julie Martineau, president of the Montgomery County United Way. “Because everything looks beautiful, and the people in poverty are away from the main roads, (many people) don’t know it’s here.”

Some parts of the county, such as New Caney and Splendora, have long struggled with poverty.


Even with the school’s breakfast and lunch programs in the first half of the summer, Dickerson said, the summer months are a difficult time for many.

“For us, we see it immediately,” said the food bank president. “We see the jump as soon as school is out.”

It’s the combination of rising electrical costs to cool homes and the gaps in meals for school-age children that hurt the most in summer, he said.

The food bank operates four mobile pantries once a month throughout the county, in addition to supplying food to various daily programs and hosting periodic “food fairs.” Since the mobile pantry service began three years ago, Dickerson said, there’s been a steady increase in demand.

Growing suburban poverty is part of a national trend, according to the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program. So while the country added some 12 million new poor people from 2005 to 2009, that growth tended to occur outside city limits.

“The growth we saw in poverty was located more frequently in the suburbs than in the cities,” said Carey Anne Nadeau, a research analyst who worked with the Brookings program and is now a masters student at MIT’s urban studies and city planning department. Houston ranked in the top 10 metropolitan areas where suburban poverty grew most rapidly in the 2000s, along with Dallas, Phoenix and Atlanta.

That decade also saw more concentrated poverty, or neighborhoods where more than 40 percent of residents live in poverty. In the suburbs, that sort of isolated poverty can be harder for families to combat, said Nadeau, because it tends to come with fewer affordable housing options and a lack of access to public services like mass transit.

Even suburbs that seem to be booming, like Montgomery County, experience the suburbanization of poverty, she said.

“It’s a trend regional economists talk about all the time, where higher-wage employment can create low-wage employment,” Nadeau said.

Three major groups contribute to hunger in Montgomery County, according to Dickerson: the working poor, children and seniors.

“When you experience the growth that Montgomery County has, in The Woodlands in particular, that brings the need for additional minimum wage workers,” Dickerson said.

1. While poverty is rising nationwide, much of that poverty is concentrated in southern states where not surprisingly, and not coincidentally, the safety net is all but non-existent. If it’s not from the federal government or local government – if you’re lucky enough to be in the right locality – there’s nothing to help you or your kids if you’re poor. Go ahead and starve, the governors and legislatures of these states couldn’t care less.

2. Speaking of local government, there’s nothing in this story to suggest that Montgomery County, which is overall a fairly wealthy place currently experiencing a huge economic boom, has anything to offer the folks on the bottom of the ladder. Given the nature of local government in a place like that, it wouldn’t shock me if their basic plan is to push anyone who needs services into neighboring counties that actually have a heart. I don’t know this to be true about Montgomery County – again, the story says nothing on the subject – but it wouldn’t surprise me if it were true, and it shouldn’t surprise you.

3. You know what would really help all those minimum wage workers? Raising the minimum wage, that’s what. Please spare me the BS sob stories about how national fast food chains and multi-national energy companies are going to be put out of business by being forced to pay their cashiers and janitors three dollars an hour more.

The coverage gap

As you may know, the intent of the Affordable Care Act was to get people below a certain income level onto Medicaid, with people at or above that income level receiving subsidized health insurance via the exchanges. Unfortunately, when the Supreme Court ruled that the Medicaid expansion mandate was unconstitutional, it meant that in states that refused to expand Medicaid people who fell below that income level but above the income level for Medicaid eligibility as things were would be left out of coverage – too poor to receive insurance subsidies, not poor enough for Medicaid. More than one million Texas adults fall into that coverage gap. Here’s a story about one of them.

It's constitutional - deal with it

It’s constitutional – deal with it

Damaged discs in Irma Aguilar’s neck make it hard to raise her arms, something she must do repeatedly when stacking boxes at the pizza restaurant where she earns $9 an hour as an assistant manager.

Sometimes, her untreated high blood pressure makes her so dizzy she has to grab onto something to prevent a fall.

And she struggles with anxiety, a heart-pounding fear that can strike at any time, but especially at night, when she lies in bed and wonders how she’s going to make ends meet.

Without insurance, she worries about how she will find the money to treat her health problems, which threaten her livelihood and the well-being of her family.


Aguilar’s four children are covered by Medicaid, which provides free or reduced-cost health care. But Aguilar makes too much money – $19,200 a year – to qualify. Texas’ Medicaid eligibility requirements are among the tightest in the nation, and Aguilar has to be nearly destitute to meet them – making no more than $4,200 a year as head of a family of five.

Emphasis mine. What that means is that if you make more than two dollars an hour working fulltime, you make too much money as the head of a family of five to qualify for Medicaid in Texas. Think about that for a minute.

Still left out of Medicaid, Aguilar hoped to get insurance under the ACA, but to qualify for a tax credit to help her pay for it, she would need to earn more than she does – at least $27,570 a year. Only those earning between 100 percent and 400 percent of the poverty level are eligible for the subsidies. Aguilar is at 70 percent.

This puts her in the gap, with neither Medicaid nor affordable health insurance.

If she could get a subsidy, Aguilar would have shelled out about $46 a month for a midlevel health plan. Without one, the cost would have zoomed to more than $200 a month, a price that puts health insurance out of her reach.

“I have to scrape by as it is,” Aguilar said. “By the time I pay rent, lights and water, there’s not much left over. Sometimes, I don’t eat so my kids can eat.”


As Texas rejected the extra Medicaid money, state lawmakers committed more resources to health care in the past session, said Stephanie Goodman, a spokeswoman with the Texas Health and Human Services Commission.

The Legislature set aside $100 million in added money for primary care services for women and an additional $332 million for mental health services, she wrote in an email.

“We’ve also developed a strong network of health centers across the state that provides low-income citizens with access to both preventive care and treatment for medical issues,” she said.

Such clinics depend on a mix of revenue – Medicaid, private insurance and patient fees – to enable them to provide care to those who lack insurance.

But those front-line providers don’t have enough money and resources to care for all the uninsured, including those in the coverage gap, said José Camacho, head of the Texas Association of Community Health Centers.

Nor can health centers provide a broad range of services, making them a too-porous safety net, others say.

“They’re no substitute for not having coverage,” said Anne Dunkelberg, a policy analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities, which advocates for low-income Texans. “They can’t provide specialty treatment or trauma care. If you’ve been hurt in a car wreck or have a broken bone or cancer, if you need a CT scan, you’re going to be out of luck. Health centers are wonderful for primary care, but they’re not a substitute for comprehensive care.”

Ms. Aguilar has chronic conditions, as noted above, so these health centers likely wouldn’t be of much good to her anyway, assuming she could afford their fees. Even if she could, she wouldn’t be able to afford any medications they might prescribe. So she’s pretty much SOL. I personally think that Rick Perry, David Dewhurst, Greg Abbott, Dan Patrick, Ted Cruz, and everyone else responsible for Texas’ horrible lack of health insurance for so many of its residents should be made to personally explain to Ms. Aguilar and her kids why they don’t want her to be able to get health care. Not that I think it would have any effect on them, but maybe if they had to explain it to all one million plus Texans that they have excluded from coverage it might eventually wear them down.

I do know one way that Ms. Aguilar and the million others like her could get helped, and that’s by electing Wendy Davis and Leticia Van de Putte this November. No guarantee that they’d be able to overcome legislative resistance, of course, but there was some sentiment for expansion in 2011, and at least they wouldn’t be adding to that resistance. And if the Lege still can’t stand the idea of expanding Medicaid, there’s another way they could help Ms. Aguilar and many others like her: Raise the minimum wage. If Ms. Aguilar earned a bit more than $13 an hour, then her fulltime salary would make it to that magic $27,500 level – which is to say, exactly at the federally defined poverty line – and she’d qualify for insurance subsidies on the exchange. Either way would be fine by me.

How much does it cost to really live in Houston?

Good question.

So what does it cost to secure an “adequate but modest living” in the Houston area?

According to the Economic Policy Institute, it requires an annual income of $63,600 for a family of two adults and two children.

Health care takes up the biggest chunk – $1,380 each month to pay for insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs – while child care is the second-biggest expense at $961 each month.

Other big monthly expenses for Houston-area residents include $945 for housing, $754 for food and $577 for transportation costs, according to the report based on a variety of government and private data.

“It’s not going out to restaurants,” said Natalie Sabadish, a research assistant at the Economic Policy Institute and co-author of the report released earlier this month. Or money for vacations, savings accounts, Internet, cable and cellphones.

“It’s being able to make ends meet month to month,” Sabadish said.

The nonprofit institute that focuses on the financial situations of low- and middle-income workers calculated what it costs for families to reach a decent living standard in 615 communities and in six types of family configurations. (See the accompanying list to see what the institute believes it takes for a variety of family sizes in the Houston area. For a family of two – one adult and one child – it’s an annual income of $46,540.)

The institute made the calculations to demonstrate what it believes is inadequacy of federal poverty measures. For a family of four, the national poverty threshold is $23,283; Sabadish said that isn’t enough to cover the basics.

The federal poverty line doesn’t take geography into account when it makes its calculations, said Sabadish. It’s the same for a family living in high-cost New York City as one living anywhere else in the nation.

You can read more about the EPI study and its methodology here, and you can play with its budget calculator yourself.

The EPI Family Budget Calculator overcomes many of the shortcomings of the federal poverty line and the Supplemental Poverty Measure by illustrating the income required to afford an adequate standard of living for six family types living in 615 specific U.S. communities. As will be explained in greater detail shortly, that the budgets differ by location is important, since certain costs, such as housing, vary significantly depending on where one resides. Geographical cost-of-living differences are built into the budget calculations by incorporating regional, state, or local variations in prices (depending on item). This geographic dimension of EPI’s family budget measurements offers a comparative advantage over using poverty thresholds, which only use a national baseline in their measurements (e.g., the federal poverty line), or which use a geographic component only for measuring home prices (e.g., the SPM).

Basic family budget measurements are also adjustable by family type because, as illustrated in the following section, expenses vary considerably depending on the number of children in a family and whether a family is headed by a single parent or two parents. The six family types include one or two parents with one, two, or three children.

Out of curiosity, I checked its numbers for some other parts of Texas. These were the results:

Austin = $66,812
Dallas = $64,704
El Paso = $59,890
Fort Worth = $64,456
San Antonio = $61,345

That puts Houston squarely in the middle for Texas’ major urban centers. Note that all of these calculations (and others for Texas – they really covered the state) are based on the entire metropolitan areas, defined either as an MSA or a HUD Metro Fair Market Rent Area, so they cover much more than just the named city. I haven’t done more than just scan all this stuff so I can’t offer a detailed critique of it, but I will say that within any of these metro areas you will find a great deal of variation in the cost of living. It might make more sense to offer a range for these areas rather than a single figure, but that would also likely take a lot more time and effort to determine, and might not be that much more accurate. The point of this study is to make people realize that the federal poverty line is a really low number, one that offers at best a scratched-out, hand-to-mouth existence that is far removed from what those of us in the middle class expect, and that the real cost of living can be much more or much less than any single nationally calculated number. For that, at least, I hope you find this to be thought provoking.

Suburban poverty

Just as the Houston area has seen a population boom in recent years, so has it seen a large increase in poverty, to the point where there are more people in poverty in Houston’s suburbs than in the city.

The number of poor people in Houston’s suburbs doubled between 2000 and 2011, surpassing the number in its urban area, researchers reported Monday.

Suburban poverty in the 10-county Houston metro area grew at almost three times the rate of urban poverty between 2000 and 2011, mirroring a national trend, according to “Confronting Suburban Poverty,” a book by two Brookings Institution researchers.

By 2011, 540,000 poor people lived in Houston’s suburbs, compared to 504,000 in the city, according to the researchers, who applaud the Houston area’s strategies for dealing with the problem.

“Suburbs are home to the largest and fastest-growing poor population in the country,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, who authored the book with Alan Berube. “Poverty is touching more people and places than before, challenging outdated notions of where poverty is and who it affects.”

Nationwide the number of suburban poor surged by 3 million people – a 64 percent increase over the last decade, the researchers found. The trend clashes with the traditional idea that poverty is concentrated in urban and rural areas.

The rapid growth in suburban poverty is complicating efforts to fight the problem, partly because traditional anti-poverty programs are geared toward urban and rural areas, according to the book.

Suburbs often lack the assistance typically available in urban and many rural areas, researchers say. In addition, narrowly tailored assistance programs often target poverty concentrations rather than the dispersed poverty of the suburbs, making cooperation difficult among nonprofit agencies across regions.

Learn more about the book here. I don’t know if it’s covered in the book or not, but at least in Texas a lot of suburban counties don’t even acknowledge the issue in their localities. The Press had a cover story on homeless youth in Fort Bend a few years ago that made this clear, and we’ve known for a long time how places like Collin County deal with the indigent sick. Fighting the problem where it is now is going to take more than just rethinking traditional strategies and marshaling charitable resources in new places. At some level it’s a political problem as well, and if it isn’t approached as such it’s going to make mitigation a lot more difficult and less efficient than it should be. The Statesman has a similar story about Austin, and there’s a lot of national coverage, too.

Where the poverty is

It’s all around us, but more in some places than in others.

The number of Houston-area residents living in very poor neighborhoods almost doubled over the past decade, which researchers say increases their risk for unemployment, health problems and crime.

The neighborhoods identified in a Brookings Institution study of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas are concentrated in Houston’s inner city, with smaller pockets across the region.

Some of the increase came as rising unemployment pushed people already living in those neighborhoods below the poverty level. Researchers say the lack of affordable housing in more affluent neighborhoods likely contributed to the increased concentration of the poor, as well.

Many of these high-poverty neighborhoods – defined as those in which 40 percent or more of the residents are poor – have been the focus of renewal efforts for years.

“The Fifth Ward is void of jobs,” said Jarvis Johnson, whose City Council district includes the neighborhood east of downtown, home to several of the high-poverty census tracts cited in the study. “There aren’t any commercial grocery stores. There aren’t any places where young people can get a job.”


Kathy Flanagan Payton, who grew up in the Fifth Ward and now runs the Fifth Ward Community Redevelopment Corp., said poverty too often leads to powerlessness.

“Poverty weakens the voice of the people,” said Payton. “It dampens the overall spirit of the community.”

Like Councilman Jarvis, she said the neighborhood is hurt by the lack of retail.

“No money is being spent in the community,” she said. “It’s all spent outside the community.”

I see that as being more effect than cause. Most of the money spent at a given business doesn’t necessarily stay in the community. Taxes go to the city and state, TIRZes aside. The owners and employees will spend their wages and profits where they live, which may or may not be in that community – if the business is not locally owned, much of its revenue may not even stay in the city.

Of course, having retail means having jobs, which certainly benefit the community, and it means having amenities that make people want to live there. It’s hard to attract people to a neighborhood that doesn’t have grocery stores, restaurants, gas stations, dry cleaners, etc etc etc. It’s a chicken-and-egg problem – businesses don’t want to be where there isn’t an established market, and people don’t want to live where there’s nothing to do and no place to go.

The good news for the Fifth Ward, as I’ve said before, is its status as the last bastion of cheap real estate inside the Loop. Sooner or later, I believe, it will become attractive to the speculators and pioneer gentrifiers. The neighborhood appears to be ready for that.

[Payton’s] group builds affordable housing and is involved in efforts to renovate the DeLuxe Theater on Lyons Avenue, which Texas Southern University will use for classes and performances.

The goal isn’t to bring back the old Fifth Ward, which was the heart of African-American life in the 1940s and ’50s, Payton said, noting that it is now about 40 percent Latino.

“We’re trying to diversify the community, both socially and culturally,” she said, “to improve the overall economics that will lead to much-needed retail and bring jobs.”

I hope to see it happen. See here for more on the national story.