Helping Texas’ Working Poor

Texas’ Center for Public Policy Priorities helps the state’s large population of working poor find resources to achieve financial stability.

On the surface, Texas has experienced an economic miracle. According to an op-ed piece in Forbes magazine on the Lone Star State’s miracle, the state grew 24.4% between 2000 and 2012. “Texas’ economic growth is driven by population increases due to the attractiveness to business of cheap labor and a warm climate … from 2000 to 2013, Texas outperformed the U.S. job creation rate by more than two-to-one.” But, as always, there is another side to miraculous stories.

According to Don Baylor, Jr., Senior Policy Analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP), it is important to look at what happened after 2008 in Texas. The Great Recession forced many workers to find less-skilled and lower wage jobs in order to survive. “After 2008, many middle-class people had to take lower-paid work, which increased competition for jobs in the service sector, retail, healthcare, landscaping. It’s like everyone went back a step,” said Baylor.

The challenge for the working poor in 2013 is that many people are barely getting by even though they are employed. Baylor and his organization have made innovations on how to close the gap between significant job growth on paper and the harsh realities that many families face daily in Texas.

Advocacy, Education, and Practicality

CPPP’s approach is one of advocacy, education, and practicality. On the practical side, the Center for Public Policy Priorities (CPPP) created a Texas family budgeting site, which provides Texas families with hard facts about what they need to earn in order to cover all their necessities, including housing, food, childcare, healthcare, and transportation. Visitors are prompted to enter basic information about their location, family size, health insurance premiums, and other expenses. The website then calculates these costs, showing just how much the family needs to make on a full-time, hourly basis to cover those expenses. The website provides information about the industries that are likely to provide that hourly wage, and the percentage of workers who are employed in those industries in that metro area.

CPPP works to provide legislators, lobbyists, and other interested citizens with strategies on effective ways to boost savings using the tax code and new legislation. The group’s white paper, “Dollar for Dollar: Incentives and Innovations to Boost Savings in Texas” – 2012 (PDF | 960 KB), includes information about why savings are so important, even for families below the poverty line. The lack of emergency savings makes families vulnerable in a crisis, increasing the chances that family may become homeless. The paper discusses statutory asset limits for various savings programs, as well as exemptions to those limits, including 529 College Savings accounts, Coverdell Education Savings Accounts, and the purchase of U.S. savings bonds, which are exempted under state law. In addition, 401(k)s, IRAs, and other retirement savings accounts are exempted under federal law. The paper further recommends improvements that can be made to Individual Development Accounts, which is another vehicle for families to increase their tax-time savings vehicles and 529 College Savings plans.

Identifying Gaps in Opportunity

CPPP has also developed a roadshow to further illuminate the struggles of the working poor. During the roadshow, CPPP displays the documentary, “A Fighting Chance,” reviews the family budgeting site, and discusses legislation and public policy issues. The documentary was also shown on public television stations throughout the state. Two thousand people in the state have seen CPPP’s roadshow, and approximately ten thousand people have viewed the documentary to date.

CPPP recently introduced a tool for Texans to identify opportunity gaps within the state. This online tool, called the Texas Regional Opportunity Index (TROI), assesses business, economic and lifestyle conditions by region or county. With a few clicks, visitors can compare economic conditions of two areas or counties, with a wide range of comparison points from which to choose: credit and debt ratios, economic development and jobs, education factors, health, nutrition, savings, and assets. "TROI offers comprehensive assessment of local economic mobility," Baylor said. When conditions change, Americans are typically willing to go where the opportunities are, and TROI helps them find the right location to pursue their dreams.

Baylor understands the big challenge for the working poor in Texas. “It’s not about resilience, ambition, or drive. These people have all that. It is about having the opportunity to increase stability in their lives, financial stability, so they can develop their careers and achieve their goals,” he said.

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Brian Prioleau
Last Updated: 04/19/2016