Fifty Years After Start of War on Poverty, Texas Has Room for Improvement

Jan 8, 2014

Today marks the 50th anniversary of President Lyndon B. Johnson's call to Congress, and the nation, to fight poverty.

Texas – President Johnson’s home state – often touts its growing economy. But the state has one of the highest rates of poverty in the U.S.

While we don’t have a number of how many people in Texas lived in poverty in 1964 — back then, the Census Bureau released data every 10 years — a look at 1970 data shows that roughly 2 million people lived in poverty in Texas in 1969 -- about 18 percent of the state's population.

In 2012, that number was about 4.6 million, still about 18 percent, though 3 points above the national average. According to federal guidelines, a family of four is considered poor if their family income is $23,000 or less.

Ann Beeson, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Priorities in Austin, says the poverty rate would be much higher in Texas if it weren't for programs launched during Johnson's era.

"It’s currently the case that 1 in 12 Americans live in Texas," Beeson says. "And we have one of the highest rates of poverty among children in the country – one in four Texas children is poor under the federal guidelines. So what that means is if we don’t fix poverty, here in Texas, we’re going to have an even bigger problem nationally."

Chuck DeVore, a policy analyst with the Texas Public Policy Foundation and former California lawmaker, says California has 45 percent more people in poverty than does Texas. "You couldn't have two states with more polar opposite public policies," DeVore says. "In California they have far more welfare, far higher taxes, far more regulation. [In] Texas, you have more jobs."

Beeson with CPPP says Texas could reduce its poverty numbers by increasing the minimum wage and expanding Medicaid, to reduce the rate of uninsured in the state.

"Our Governor [Rick Perry] has refused federal dollars that would immediately lift over 1 million people out of poverty because it would give them access to health care for the first time," she says.

DeVore with the TPPF says "beyond a shadow of a doubt," the "best poverty reducing programs are those programs that equip people to work and encourage economic prosperity."

He says the state needs to improve its K-12 education system, especially in urban areas, and allow parents to send their children to other public or private schools, if they're learning in a failing school district.