What does Texas have to be proud of?
This is a state where people are able to find opportunity. Texas is creating a lot of jobs across the income spectrum. Our unemployment rate has been lower than the national average every month for years. Our per capita personal income is 97 percent of the national average. Median household income is, similarly, just a hair below the national median. The state’s population growth suggests that people are taking notice—between 2000 and 2010, Texas gained more than 4 million people, of whom about 2 million were Americans from other states. It’s become a cliché to say that people are “voting with their feet,” but there it is. When we talk about how well the economy’s doing in this state, it’s not a mistake or an accident or a mirage. The data that we have is valid and does suggest that something here is working quite well.
But at the same time, Texas has one of the highest poverty rates in the country, 17 percent compared to 14.3 percent in the U.S. as a whole, according to 2011 census data. And the income gap between the richest and the poorest Texans has widened in recent years. Are these problems in spite of the state’s success, or are they a side effect?
The problems predated the state’s economic success. Historically, it was a very, very poor state. Poverty’s an ongoing issue, especially in certain parts of the state, and I think it’s definitely something Texas should be looking at. I’d focus more on the poverty rate than the gap, which could also mean that people are getting richer.
The overall trajectory has been one of population growth and economic growth, partly because we had room to grow, and I’m not sure that any problems have been exacerbated by the economic success. We’re creating jobs that are not just minimum wage, but middle income and higher wage jobs as well. In many respects we’re doing better than people would guess, and we’re not getting worse. In some areas we’re improving.
How is Texas improving?
Everyone expects that we’re doing the worst in everything, and that’s not true. Our schools are getting better. There’s less funding per capita than in a lot of states, but the outcomes in public schools aren’t actually that bad. We’re in the middle of the pack as far as fourth grade and eighth grade math and science scores on the federal NAEP [National Assessment of Educational Progress] exams. If you compare us to the other big states—Illinois, Florida—we’re the best of all of them. We’re last or among the last in terms of the percentage of adults with a high school diploma, but given that we’re now among the lowest dropout rates, that won’t be true 20 years from now.
Texas also has the highest rate of people without health insurance—more than one in four are uninsured. Isn’t that a problem?
The rate of people without health insurance has been talked about a lot lately. It’s gotten a little worse, and it’s not a new issue. The United Health Foundation, for 2012, ranked us 40th overall for state health, and among the factors bringing us down was that we have the lowest insurance rate. But if you look at the category of health outcomes—defined as deaths, disease and days of work missed due to illness—we’re 25th. We’ve improved in some categories but not in others. On things like smoking rates, we’re actually pretty low. The state has raised the tobacco tax a couple of times in the past ten years, and a lot of the cities have passed various smoking bans. One thing that is planned in the current budget is funding for mental health care, around $200 million. That’s another area where Texas has historically ranked worst, and it was a bipartisan push this time around. On a lot of these social services the barrier is financial rather than philosophical.
Texas has historically had a huge oil industry, but countries and states with a lot of natural resources tend to have low growth—the so-called “resource curse.” Did Texas dodge that trap?