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Means and ends

Two, four, six, eight, welfare reform wasn’t so great.

When Texas became one of the first states in the nation to overhaul welfare by insisting the poor work, the governor made a bold prediction.

“I believe this bill will make Texas a much better place,” Gov. George W. Bush said at the June 1995 bill signing.

If issuing fewer welfare checks means better, then Texas has succeeded. But Texas’ welfare-to-work success masks a growing poverty problem that, critics say, has little to do with the writing of paltry checks and much to do with the state’s historical resistance to offering services to those in need.

More than a decade after Bush signed the bill into law, the number of people receiving a Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, check has fallen 73 percent.

Today, fewer than 5 percent, or about 173,000 of the state’s 4 million poor children and adults, receive checks, a maximum of $223 monthly for a mother and two children.


“We’ve ended welfare as we know it, but we haven’t done anything about poverty,” said Barbara Best, Texas executive director of the Children’s Defense Fund. “I can’t imagine what the future of this state will be like if we don’t start investing in families and children.”

Texas has moved thousands of poor single mothers into the work force, but their average wage of $7.19 an hour isn’t lifting them out of poverty. Officials say that benefits, including child care, Medicaid, federal tax credits and food stamps, help provide a safety net, but charities often have to fill the needs of these women, who represent the majority of those on welfare.

Five years ago, 3.1 million individuals were living below federal poverty levels.

By 2005, more than 17 percent of Texans were living below federal poverty levels, with 800,000 more living in poverty than in 2000, pushing the total Texas poverty picture toward 4 million. And nearly one in four children now lives in a poor household, making Texas the fifth-worst state for child poverty.

Poorer children are more likely to arrive at school unprepared to learn. If they fail and drop out, their job prospects are severely limited. Or, they may become parents who are unable to properly care for their children.

Did someone say fail and drop out?

One out of three Texas students don’t graduate, and more students drop out than finish high school in the state’s largest cities, according to education experts.

Statewide, more than 2.5 million students have dropped out of Texas high schools in the last 20 years, and each graduating class loses about 120,000 students from freshman year to senior year, according to the San Antonio-based Intercultural Development Research Association.

The research group says more than half of students in Texas’ largest cities drop out. The dropout rate among blacks, Hispanics and low-income students is about 60 percent, according to the Center for Education at Rice University.

The statewide dropout rate is about 33 percent — or 20 points higher than what the Texas Education Agency reports.

Experts warn that the high dropout rate will lead to economic and social problems.

“If you live in a city like Dallas or Houston and half of your kids are not finishing high school, it’s a social crisis,” said Eileen Coppola, a researcher at Rice.

Dropouts are more likely to live in poverty, have health problems and end up in jail, Coppola said.

Dropouts on average earn about $9,200 per year less than high school graduates, said Frances Deviney, director for Texas Kids Count. That means dropouts give up about $900 million per year in wages.

The 2.5 million dropouts over the last 20 years represent $730 billion in lost revenue and costs for the state, Deviney said, citing a report from the research association.

“We have a huge problem,” Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said.

But don’t worry! We’ll get right on those property tax cuts. That’ll help for sure.

Back to the original story:

Rep. Harvey Hilderbran, a Kerrville Republican who authored the 1995 bill, said he’s satisfied that lawmakers did change the culture of dependence and replace it with one that relied on work.

“At this point, the reduction in welfare rolls is a resounding and unquestionable success,” he said.

And if the goal all along was simply to get people off welfare, then I’d have to agree that Texas has been successful at doing so. Of course, if that were the point, then all that really needed to be done was change the rules to make it harder to get on welfare. (Which is pretty much what was actually done.) If on the other hand the goal was to help reduce the number of people, especially children, living in poverty, then I’d say we’ve failed miserably. I guess it’s a good thing that wasn’t the goal, then. Eye on Williamson has more.

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One Comment

  1. ns says:

    You should read Gerry Phelps.

    Seems to me, throwing more money on the problem doesn’t really solve the problem. It just encourages it.

    The problem with poverty is larger than just a quantity of money problem. And Gerry Phelps, having worked hands on in the trenches with helping those in poverty should know.

    And as for someone who has actually lived in poverty, her observations are very accurate.