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Texas Children: Canaries in the Coal Mine

A report by the nonpartisan Texans Care for Children finds that glaring social problems borne by Texas' children have resulted from its state government's policies.

Texas. Merely mentioning the state's name evokes a vision of wide-open spaces, rugged independence and, most importantly, unrivaled economic prowess.

The Lone Star State has carefully nurtured its national reputation as an economic leader. In fact, the official website of three-term Gov. Rick Perry includes a brag page; reading the national headlines listed there could lead even the most cynical Texan to blush with pride.

It looks like Texas' longtime model of cutting spending and never raising taxes works exceptionally well, so it's not surprising that many states are following Texas' lead. But it's less obvious that the state's fiscal policies and widely admired approach to balancing its budget have created a devastating legacy. According to officials at Austin-based Texans Care for Children, a multi-issue, nonpartisan policy organization, Texas children are falling behind the rest of the country in nearly every aspect of child well-being.

“The perception of Texas across the country is often that we have remained economically strong, while choosing to under-invest in social services,” says Eileen Garcia, CEO of Texans Care for Children. “The lesson of the Texas experiment is that neglecting our people is not a viable way of balancing the budget. We have been a state of haves and have nots that threatens to become a state of merely have nots. Texans shoulder the burden of local taxes due to an anemic state budget, while also having the added burden that community supports and safety nets that families turn to when times are tough just aren’t there. We face a $27 billion shortfall and some of the worst social outcomes of any state in the nation."

Not that Perry hasn't acknowledged the difficulties of the pending budget, although he hasn't focused on social services. "Texans understand the realities of these tight budgetary times, and just like Texas families and employers have been doing, we will tighten our belts in order to balance the budget," he said earlier this month. "In the end, we intend to give the people what they want and deserve: a fiscally responsible government, which will lead to more jobs, greater freedom, and continued security in their communities and homes."

For years, services that benefit Texas' most vulnerable citizens have been the repeated target of state budget cuts. Study after study has warned about the perils of inadequately providing for the future of Texas children. The latest, "A Report on the Bottom Line: Conditions for Children and the Texas of Tomorrow," was released today by Garcia's organization.

The 76-page report, drawing upon Census data, demographic forecasts and national and state data sources, finds Texas is on a course for stunning economic failure unless it closes gaps in well-being for the child population, especially Hispanic children.

"A sick, uneducated, unskilled work force does not propel a state forward," Garcia writes in the report's preface. "The devastating forecasts depict a Texas that few of us would want to visit, let alone call home."

The bi-annual Texas legislative session opened this month to news of an estimated $27 billion budget shortfall. But even before legislators took their seats in the capitol, Texas lagged every other state in per-capita spending. Before considering budget-cutting proposals, Texas also ranked 50th among states in health care coverage for children, mental health services for children with diagnosed challenges, preventing childhood homelessness, preventing childhood food insecurity, and preventing obesity among adolescent girls, according to the report.

The cumulative impact of previous budget cuts has put Texas children behind the rest of the nation. When compared to children in the rest of the U.S., a Texas child is 93 percent more likely not to have access to health care, 33 percent more likely not to receive mental health care services, 35 percent more likely to grow up poor, and 16 percent more likely to drop out of school. Given that Texas is not a poor state — its citizens' median wealth ranks 27th out of 50 — the dire status of its children is all the more startling.

Texas ranks third among the seven worst states in overall child well-being, according to the advocacy organization Every Child Matters; the other six states are the nation's poorest.

In the area of child protection — a fundamental measurement of child well-being — Texas ranks last again. In the last decade, more children in Texas than in any other state have died as a result of abuse or neglect. The state invests far less in prevention than it does in child welfare services, which are provided after the abuse or neglect has been identified.

Sadly — and more expensively in the long run — budget funds for prevention programs are often the first to be cut when money is tight. According to Texans Care, the Texas Legislature is considering a proposed 84 percent cut in this area, even though there is mounting evidence that investment in child abuse prevention and early intervention programs creates significant savings to taxpayers.

Experts like Rice University professor Stephen Murdock, state demographer under former Gov. George W. Bush, sounded the alarm years ago. Today, Murdock warns that if Texas doesn't correct course soon, the next generation of Texans will have less education, less wealth and shorter life spans than the generation before.

According to Murdock, the state will face huge setbacks if it fails to provide opportunities and resources that enable Texas children to reach their full potential. In the absence of these changes, he predicts the average Texas household in 2040 will be $6,500 poorer in 2000 constant dollars.

"In 2000, 18 percent of the [Texas] labor force had less than a high school level of education. If we are not successful in educating the young people of Texas, we could, by 2040, have a labor force in which 30 percent of the labor force has less than a high school level of education," Murdock says. "So when you start talking about the development and education of young people, you're talking about the future and, I would argue, the economic development and future prosperity of Texas."

Education, he says, is key to overcoming differences that exist between minority children and the rest of America. For Texas, adequately funding education is crucial because of the state's shifting demographics — the white student population in Texas is declining while the number of African-American, Asian and Hispanic students is rising.

The Texans Care report points out that inadequate state funding — not immigration — drives the state's poor outcomes for "minority" children. Murdock agrees. "Most Hispanics in Texas have been here for generations; they're natives of Texas, citizens of Texas and of the United States," he says.

"So, one of the things that happens when you talk about cuts in education is the implications are greatest for those that are most disadvantaged. That's true in Texas or across the country," says Murdock, who notes that Texas has long had relatively high rates of poverty. "The future can be bright if we will meet this challenge as it relates to providing opportunities. Because we know from the data that exists that there aren't a lot of differences in terms of the ability to achieve. There are only differences in the opportunities to achieve."

Among the many policy changes Texans Care recommends are these top three:

• Ensure youth and families have a voice in policy and program decisions that affect them.

• Improve coordination among state services and programs.

• Hold the state accountable for better outcomes for Texans — hold public agencies accountable for effective delivery of services and hold the Texas Legislature accountable for building budgets based on actual need and projections of growth.

Cutting waste and improving efficiency have always been part of the Texas culture. But the complexity of the social issues Texas faces has grown. "The social problems we as a state have ignored don't go away just because we don’t choose to focus on them," Garcia says.

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