Almost one in five (18.5%) Texans lived below the poverty level (e.g., a family of four earning less than $22,811 per year) last year, according to the 2011 American Community Survey. Even more alarming, over one in four (26.6%) children in Texas lived in poverty. Nationally, the number of people living in poverty reached the highest point in 50 years.
One in five Texans in urban areas was poor, and one in eight in rural areas. Texas is home to four of the five of the poorest metropolitan areas in the country. Sadly, the poorest place to live in the United States is in the Mc-Allen-Edinburg-Mission area.
As the ranks of the poor grew, so did the gap between the rich and the poor. Income inequality increased in 20 states including Texas, which has the 7th-highest income gap in the nation. While the number of wealthy households grew in 2011, an even greater number saw their earnings fall to the lowest levels. Overall, Texas households saw their incomes shrink, with median income falling 1.2% to $49,392.
In other words, the only people doing well in today’s economy are people who were already doing well, the middle class is hemorrhaging, and the ranks of the poor are swelling.
Our state and nation cannot prosper while leaving so many people behind. Children who grow up in poverty suffer lasting consequences: poverty affects cognitive development, academic attainment, future earnings potential, and health outcomes. Taken together, this will cost our state and nation greatly, undermining economic competitiveness and our future prosperity. So while it’s morally unacceptable to ignore the millions of Texans living in poverty, it’s also a devastating mistake.
It will require a significant new investment in education (from pre-K to post-secondary) and other basic services such as health and nutrition to break the cycle of poverty and put our state and nation back on the pathway to prosperity. Unfortunately, Congress is poised to do the very opposite. Massive spending cuts in education, public health, housing, and other core services are about to occur under the Balanced Budget Act “sequestration” provisions. In Texas, all agencies have been asked to propose across-the-board spending cuts on top of the deep cuts made in 2011 to health care, education, and other key services. In a nutshell, we are on the verge of cutting the very services that provide economic stability for struggling Texans, build bridges out of poverty, and strengthen our economy.
Our 20 member food banks are most concerned with the proposal in Congress to cut $16 billion from SNAP (AKA Food Stamps). Should the House-passed version of the Farm Bill pass (the Senate’s version proposes $4.5 billion in SNAP cuts), up to 303,000 Texans stand to lose critical nutrition benefits on January 1. This would pose a serious strain on our food banks, who are already struggling to keep up with the increase in demand. Several of our food banks are facing serious food shortages.
Food banks play a critical role in preventing struggling Texas families from going hungry, but we cannot make up for a SNAP cut of this magnitude. With one in five Texas households struggling to afford food, according to USDA’s latest food insecurity survey, we rely on the collective public investment in programs like SNAP to ensure no Texan goes hungry.
Food banks measure their response to hunger in the number of pounds of food they distribute, and the number of meals that produces for needy families. Using data from public and private sources, our national network, Feeding America, has “mapped the meal gap” and determined that Texas needs to fill a 1.84 billion meal gap. Our food banks are working hard to meet this challenge, looking for new sources of food, with a focus on more nutritious food, as well as innovations to increase capacity and efficiency.
We are also committed to connecting more eligible Texans to SNAP, which will play an important role in our efforts to fill the meal gap. The average monthly SNAP benefit for an individual is $125 per month, or about 54 meals according to Feeding America’s meal gap calculator, which estimates the average cost of a meal in Texas of $2.31. According to USDA, only two-thirds of eligible Texans participate in SNAP. Our food banks are working to expand access to SNAP by providing education, screening, and application assistance to the clients who come to us for help in feeding their families.
The House Farm Bill proposal would increase the meal gap in Texas, taking food off the tables of hungry families and money out of our economy. If the $16B SNAP cut is approved, Texas would experience a monthly loss of $37M in SNAP benefits, which translates to a loss of 16M meals per month. The monthly loss to the Texas economy would be $67.8M, since every $1 in SNAP spending produces $1.79 in economic activity.
Congress should heed the call of the latest data on food insecurity and poverty and reject any attempt to cut SNAP and other programs that support struggling families and strengthen our economy. This is not only the smart thing to do, but the popular thing to do. Three-quarters of Americans support SNAP and oppose cuts, according to the latest poll.
While our food banks work to fill the meal gap in Texas, Congress should take action to “shorten the line,” by strengthening our collective investment in SNAP and other services that will put people and our economy back on the path to prosperity.