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Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume. 34, Number 10. 1971

Texas: Nation of Working Poor

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Texas: Nation of Working Poor

One tends to think of Texas as a vast country within a country, where cowhands still chase long-horns over the prairie and oil wells clank day and night on half the ranches. And so it is. But there's another side to Texas. In the United States families with an income below $6000 are considered to be in the poverty bracket, and in Texas 26% of the population comprises 843,705 families with an annual income of less than $3000. Of a total population of 11 million, 2.8 million live in such families. In about 30% of Texas's 254 counties almost 50% of the population are 'officially' poverty stricken.

Texas is identified by the Department of Health, Education and Welfare as the state with the greatest number of 'working poor'. Yet only 11 states have a lower per capita expenditure by state and local governments for public welfare. On the other hand only a few states have a greater number of resident millionaires.

A 'culture of poverty' is dangerously close to becoming stratified as a permanent social level in Texas. Ironically the economic 'locking in' of a large segment of the population at a level below the poverty level is occurring simultaneously as Texas attains national leadership in industrial development.

To qualify for welfare assistance recipients must be in one of four categories 1) Aid to families with Dependent Children (A.F.D.C.); 2) Old Age Assistance (O.A.A.); 3) Aid to the Permanently and Totally Disabled (A.P.T.D.); 4) Aid to the Blind (A.B.).

99% of the A.F.D.C. families have only 1 parent in the family. 95% of the families have anincome from A.F.D.C. payments of less than $60 per week, and only 35% of families have any outside income, so that 60% of the 62,000 families on A.F.D.C. have an income of less than $60—in actual fact the average monthly grant per family is a mere $118 per month. Since the families average 3.2 children, $30 per week hardly buys the weekly ration of homing grits and corn bread or tacos and chile beans, let alone pays the rent, buys clothing or pays for education.

Ethnically around 50% of A.F.D.C. recipients are negro, 35% Latin, and the rest mainly Anglo.

The biggest category of welfare recipients are the aged, 250,000 of them. To qualify for assistance the land on which one's house is built must not be more than 200 acres or $5,000 in value and one must not own a car "being the current year's model". So on the surface at least, qualification criteria do not seem too harsh. But the payments average only $63 per month, and are prohibited from exceeding $130. To live on $15 per week is difficult in New Zealand; it is well nigh impossible in the United States. Fortunately some of the aged receive extra payments from the Old Age Surviviors Dependency Insurance scheme. Veterans pensions, Railroad retirement funds and other sources.

The third category of welfare recipient is the totally or permanently disabled. To qualify, a recipient must have a condition which is "irreversible or progressive. He must require the services or presence of another person to perform the usual tasks of daily living and he must be unable to engage in a useful occupation." The property qualification for eligibility is the same as for O.A.A., with the exception that a person is ineligible if he owns more than 50 acres of land. The average payment is $60 per month. Only 52% of recipients have any other income besides A.P.T.D. payments.

Aid to the Blind is the smallest category, there are only 4000 recipients and paradoxically they are better off than the disabled averaging $80 per month. 66% however receive no outside income.

Lumping all four categories together there are 536,000 receiving welfare payments in Texas, 25% are Latin, 36% Negro and 38% Anglo. But as I said earlier, there are almost 3 million Texans living in families with incomes of under $3000, so that means 2.5 million poverty stricken people are receiving no help whatsoever. Why?

There are a variety of reasons. A major one is that Texas is really the epitomy of the American myth, cowpoke to millionaire. Texas is a prime example of what capitalism, in its pure form, can do to its dropouts. The state welfare offices are trying to bridge the gap, but so far with little success. They are constantly faced with stringent opposition from influential Texans who consider welfare on a par with panhandling. And to worsen matters, at the moment the welfare agencies are caught in a wrangle between Federal and State Government over just who should finance and control the welfare system. The Federal Government is trying (and succeeding) in gaining more control over the welfare system while reducing the proportion of its share in total payments. The trend will probably be in Texas, as in other states, for the State Government to provide an equal share of funding in Federal inspired projects.

Statistics like the preceding may not convey much. It's only really when you see the poverty at first hand, smell it that you know what living on $60 a month is like. I was lucky enough to spend a week with the supervisor of the office of the State Department of Public Welfare in Tyler, 50 miles east of Dallas. Tyler is a city about the size of Palmerston North, unexceptional, except for its billing as the 'rose capital of the world'! Previously I'd driven through slum areas in similar towns in Florida, Louisianna, Alabama, Mississipi, but here I got my chance to see at first hand. For several days I accompanied social workers as they made their calls, and while I thought I knew what to expect, actually coming face to face with it was a shock.

Tyler is divided into different residential segments, white upper class, middle class, lower class, negro middle class (not many houses in that one actually) and lower class, and mexican. It's hard to pick the grottiest part of town, negro or white poor. But the negro section is bigger.

The roads are dusty, red clay pitted with potholes that break axles like matchsticks; the city authorities just ignore the question of the provision of sealed roads and footpaths, and few of the houses have plumbing inside, an outhouse suffices. The houses are one two or three rooms usually, and always overcrowded. In summer the heat, the flies, and the dust from the road and yards outside make life miserable, and when it rains the dust becomes knee deep mud.

I visited the area in mid-week, and quickly lost count of the number of school aged kids playing hooky. Poverty in its vicious cycle breeds apathy, apathy means parents who don't give a damn what their kids do. And when you meet a 13 year old girl with 2 illegitimate children you have a fair idea of what their kids do do.

The worst poverty I saw was actually outside Tyler about 5 miles. We made a call on an old couple named, in good bible belt fashion, Gertrude and Sampson. Sampson had palsy and couldn't see too well so he wasn't much help to Gertrude, which was a kind of a pity since Gertrude had glaucoma so wasn't too hot herself. Their shack (they had been dispossessed from their last one and were in danger of losing this one) was a one-roomed affair, with a rakishly tilted roof which threatened to topple in the next storm. The only furniture was an old bed with a couple of tattered blankets on it, and a battered T.V. set whose monochrome flickers might have provided some relief from the old couple's monotonous routine had not their encroaching blindness prevented this. There was no plumbing in the house, a neighbour with a car fills some detergent cans with water when he remembers. They were living off $60 a month, which they would not have got if a social worker hadn't spotted their shack and come to investigate. The worker had to invent ages for the old couple to enable them to qualify; neither remembered when they were born.

The lot of the welfare workers is not an easy one. They are hampered by inadequate funding from above, and often a refusal to cooperate from below. It is a frustrating job usually; the recipient's lives have often been irretrievably ruined by poverty and the resulting ignorance. Girls are prescribed contraception and get pregnant, children are placed in school and then run away, houses are built and are slums in months.

I remember once trying to locate a negro man who had applied for disability payment. We stopped at a farm to ask a group of women who were shelling peas in an old tin shed if they knew of the man. "No suh" was the answer from all (and we had explained why we wanted the man). Yet when we eventually traced him, we found that his wife had been one of the workers in that shed.

This was a classic example of the suspicion and hostility which exists between the bulk of the Southern black populace and the whites; even with the very whites who are doing their utmost to improve the situation.

The Texas legislature is at least making some move toward reform, and in 1969 set up an Interim Committee on welfare reform, which reported in January of this year. The Committee recommended changes in administration of the welfare system (e.g. "that the name of the Department of Public Welfare be changed to the 'Department of Human Resources'"—this will mean a radical change in that, as in many other states, the queues of unemployed will line up not in the 'Unemployment Bureau', but in the 'Bureau of Human Resources'. That must make them feel a whole lot better.)

Unfortunately I left before hearing just what action the Senate will take, but it is unlikely that the amount of aid reaching the army of poor in Texas will be substantially or significantly increased in the near future, unless a drastic rethink on the whole problem is undertaken by the influential (moneyed) Texans who run the state.

(All Statistics accurate as at June 1st 1970—Source Texas State Legislature Report.)

Bill Calver