“In Texas today, the American dream is distant,” says the introduction to the new edition of Texas on the Brink, the biennial report on Texas’s foibles, which was released yesterday.
The Texas on the Brink reports began in 2003, and were produced by Eliot Shapleigh, a Democratic senator from El Paso. This is the sixth edition, and the second since Shapleigh’s retirement; it was produced by the Texas Legislative Study Group, which is chaired by Garnet Coleman, a Democratic representative from Houston. The purpose of the report has always been to highlight the areas where the state falls short compared to other states—not to scold as much as to flag up the issues that need more attention from the public and from the Lege.
It is, in other words, a useful corrective to the banner-waving and drum-banging that Texas often indulges in, particularly given that over the past ten years the state has had so much to brag about. The new edition, similarly, points to the state’s challenges: Texas ranks 8th highest for the percentage of people who live below the federal poverty level, 44th lowest for the median net worth of households, first for the amount of hazardous waste generated. Many of Texas’s problems are the sort that, if not addressed, are likely to hamper the whole state’s well-being and economic competitiveness in the future: Texas ranks 50th for the percentage of population that have graduated from high school, seventh for the percentage of children living in poverty, 15th for the prevalence of diagnosed diabetes. This is why the report concludes that Texas is, as ever, “on the brink.”
Reading through the rankings, though, Texas’s “brinkiness” isn’t an open-and-shut case. Some of the metrics cited are, in themselves, neutral. The fact that the state has the nation’s 3rd-highest birth rate, for example, is a fact rather than a problem. On other metrics (6th for affordability of homes, 36th lowest unemployment rate, 46th lowest average credit card debt) Texas sounds pretty good. For that matter, there are plenty of metrics where Texas does quite well (we have a relatively low smoking rate, for example) that aren’t mentioned here.
Some of the rankings are inconclusive, even artificially ominous, without more explanation. Texas ranks 44th-worst for “financial behavior,” but 46th lowest for personal bankruptcies per capita, and 44th lowest for foreclosure rates. Foreclosure and personal bankruptcy are, of course, pretty big symptoms of financial trouble. Or consider a couple of back-to-back metrics: 17th-highest average hourly earnings of production workers on manufacturing payroll; 43rd-lowest for percentage of workers who are in a union. What conclusion are we supposed to draw from that?
On other issues, the report is clearly gesturing at problems that should compel Texas’s attention, but without nailing the argument. More context would be useful here, because some of Texas’s struggles are causally connected and lumping all the metrics together means that the connections are blurred.
The category of “women’s issues,” for example, includes about 20 rankings. The most concerning metrics suggest that lack of access to health care is a major problem for women in Texas. Here’s the story that you can string together from these rankings: the state has the 8th highest rate of cervical cancer. It’s not because Texas has high cancer rates in general; it doesn’t, and as the report notes, we’re 38th-lowest for breast cancer rates. Screening for precancerous cells is one of the reasons that adult women are advised to get annual Pap smears, and Texas ranks 41st for those. A lot of women get Pap smears at providers like Planned Parenthood, especially if they don’t have health insurance (and Texas ranks 51st for the percentage of non-elderly women who don’t have health insurance.) The fact that Governor Rick Perry has been squabbling with the federal government over whether such providers should receive state funding would be a bigger political issue, perhaps, if not for the fact that Texas ranks 47th in terms of women’s voter registration, and 51st for turnout.
Those rankings, in other words, are significant, but they don’t really tell the story by themselves; they’re the building blocks of the story, and readers have to stitch the pieces together themselves. Complicating the task is that some of the others rankings in the category (the state has the 18th highest percentage of business owned by women, for example, and ranks 27th in terms of median income for full-time work) don’t seem connected. They don’t even seem particularly troubling.
At a press conference announcing the new report, Coleman himself said as much; some of the rankings included aren’t that ominous, he explained, and the point of the report is to inspire Texas to do better in the areas where it is falling short. That’s a worthy goal, and the newest edition of Texas on the Brink, like the previous ones, will be a useful reference point for the public and for policy makers. But the next step, for advocates and for politicians, should be to specify what the state’s most pressing problems are, and how they’re connected.
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