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In Texas, poverty erodes opportunity

The energetic, fast-growing economy in Central Texas is a source of pride. Estimates released recently by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis show the Austin-area gross domestic product reached $98.7 billion last year and is on track to surpass $100 billion this year.

Despite this economic success, poverty remains a stubborn and concerning fact of life in Central Texas, harming the health, education and futures of tens of thousands of individuals. From 2011 to 2012, the percentage of residents in the five-county Austin-Round Rock-San Marcos metro area living in poverty increased to 15.5 percent, according to recent Census Bureau figures.

For all the employment created by the region’s strong economy, the census data signal that the jobs many Central Texans have don’t pay them enough to move them out of poverty.

Statewide, the percentage of Texans living in poverty moved in the right direction from 2011 to 2012 — falling from 18.5 percent to 17.9 percent, a percentage that represents 4.5 million Texans. While an improvement from the previous year, the state’s poverty rate still exceeds the national average of 15.9 percent.

Last year, 46.5 million Americans lived in poverty. The federal government set the 2012 poverty threshold for a family of four at $23,400, less than half the national median household income of $51,371. The median household income in Texas was $50,740, according to the Census Bureau.

Texas weathered the recession better than most other states, though the state’s median household income last year was almost $2,200 less than 2008’s median income of $52,935. Incomes have been too slow to get back to where they were.

The pace of growth in the oil industry is a big reason why Texas’ economy is a bragging right for the state’s political leaders. The International Business Times, citing a recent American Enterprise Institute report, noted that Texas would rank 10th in global oil production if it were an independent nation. And according to numbers from the Energy Information Administration, oil production in Texas might reach 3 million barrels a day by early next year and 4 million barrels daily by 2015.

But Texas ranks high in well-known, negative ways, too. Low-paying jobs tend to provide few benefits, one reason why millions of poor Texans and Americans don’t have health insurance. Last month the Census Bureau reported that Texas continues to lead the nation in the percentage of people without health insurance, with 5.7 million uninsured residents, or 26 percent, in 2011.

Gov. Rick Perry and Texas legislators refused to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income Texans under the Affordable Care Act, and they balked at setting up a state-run insurance marketplace. The federal government is setting up the marketplace, or exchange, instead. It’s where Texans without employment-based health insurance will be able to buy coverage and receive tax credits for the coverage if they qualify.

The numbers released highlighted that for all the opportunity a strong economy brings, for too many Texans, poverty keeps opportunity out of reach.

Austin American-Statesman