Dallas Morning News, December 22, 2007: Texas can do better

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By Tod Robberson

It’s almost an embarrassment of riches. Texans have such a high level of productivity and enterprise that, if ranked on a global scale, our state would have the eighth-largest gross domestic product in the world, according to the governor’s office. We are second only to California in total production of goods and services, edging close to $1.1 trillion last year.

Half of America’s 10 fastest-growing cities are right here in Texas. We exported more goods last year than any other state in the nation. With a median household income of $77,038, Plano ranked as the richest city in America with 250,000-plus population, according to the 2006 census.

We have the most shopping malls of any state, reflecting our significant discretionary income. A Gallup poll last year ranked us 12th in church or synagogue attendance, suggesting we have a compassionate and moral bent. That’s borne out by the high numbers of aid missions our churches organize for needy countries like Haiti and Mexico.

But something’s not right with this picture. Just up the road from Plano are scenes of abject poverty, as are evident in the photos on these pages from the Budget Motel in McKinney. Texas is home to five of the 10 poorest counties in the country with populations over 250,000, according to 2006 census figures. With 3.87 million people living in poverty, we’re second only to California in sheer numbers of poor, but we’re No. 1 in the percentage of our population 16.9 percent living in poverty.

This isn’t a guilt trip. Successful Texans should feel proud that they’re working hard and enjoying the fruits of their labor. At the same time, the statistics show some undeniable disparities that should provoke everyone from the Legislature to the pulpit to the company human resources department to ask: Can Texas do better?

Author Herman Melville once wrote about humans’ tendency to harshly judge one another that “nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed and well-fed.”

As some of us enjoy the good times, it can be easy to disregard people who are not sharing our success. The greater the disparity, the more distance the well-off tend to put between themselves and folks at the other end of the spectrum.

Occasionally, there are points of unavoidable contact, like when the homeless guy stands at the intersection as drivers anxiously wait for the light to turn green. When it happens to me, I find myself avoiding eye contact. Then I convince myself: He’s lazy. There are plenty of jobs out there. If I give him money, he’ll only spend it on booze or drugs or cigarettes. Well, maybe I could give him a quarter. (I start fumbling for loose change.) Oops, the light just turned green. Well, maybe next time.

Dallas Morning News photographer Mona Reeder’s images on the preceding pages comprise one such point of uncomfortable contact with that other world. They should, at a minimum, challenge what we assume about Texans who are nowhere near getting a shot at the good life.

On the front cover, there’s Kimberly Williams, a 15-year-old who undoubtedly has made some bad decisions in life. She’s holding her newborn, Jasmine. If we can somehow ignore the fact that Kimberly’s ankles are shackled because she’s a Texas Youth Commission inmate, there are other aspects of her and Jasmine’s probable future that should trouble anyone with a beating heart.

Like her mother, Jasmine has at least one parent who served prison time. Like her mother, Jasmine has a mother who became pregnant as a teenager.

A child like Jasmine, born into poverty, is 22 times as likely to grow up being abused and neglected as a child born in a higher-income category, the Children’s Defense Fund says. As an African-American, Jasmine is more likely to drop out of school and serve jail time than her white counterparts.

Jasmine’s destiny seems almost preprogrammed for misery unless someone intervenes to break what is clearly a vicious cycle.

Another series of photos takes us to the “Golden Triangle” between Houston and Port Arthur, home to four of the nation’s 10 biggest refineries. The sisters in those photos Yola Barriere, Dorothea La Barrea and Veronica Sue Prescott have been stalked by premature death. They spent their lives working hard in Port Arthur as clerks and secretaries. Four of their brothers are veterans. They’ve done the things Texans do to stand tall and feel proud.

But they did make one common mistake. They breathed.

They formed part of the support infrastructure that drives our state’s lucrative gasoline, chemicals and plastics industries. But Jefferson County, where Port Arthur is located, also had a cancer rate 22.6 percent higher than the state’s overall rate, according to Texas Cancer Registry data from 2004.

One price of our successful export economy is that Texas is No. 1 in the country for toxic and cancerous manufacturing emissions, according to an analysis of federal data compiled by Environment Texas, an Austin-based group. It found that four Texas counties Harris, Galveston, Brazoria and Jefferson rank among the nation’s top five in carcinogenic emissions.

Many living in the state’s most high-risk areas don’t stand a fighting chance against health problems because they have no health insurance. Per capita, we have the worst coverage rate in the country. In places like Port Arthur, the median household income is about $35,000 a year less than half that of Plano. In other words, the people most exposed to toxins in their air and water are among the Texans least able to pay for health insurance.

There’s no prescription for a quick fix to the problems staring at us through Mona Reeder’s window. We can say it’s not our problem, or try to avoid eye contact while waiting for the light to turn green. But even as we move on to other stuff, these disparities will remain a part of the Texas success story.

That’s too bad. Because we all know that Texas can do better.

Tod Robberson is a Dallas Morning News editorial writer. His e-mail address is

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