The economy of the state of Texas should serve as a model for the rest of the United States. At least that’s what Rick Perry says. On his campaign website, Perry claims that he “has helped build the nation’s strongest economy”; in another place, he says Texas has “the nation’s top economy”. So let’s see what he would like the rest of the US to look like.
Perry has been trumpeting one of the notable features of the Texas economy: the large number of new jobs in the state since 2009. In a stagnant national economy struggling to emerge from a disastrous near-depression, the growth in jobs in Texas is significant. Rick Perry will cite this growth thousands of times, until he is defeated or elected President.
Perry wants us to know some other facts about his long record as Texas Governor. His website is proud of his economic policies: “Texans enjoy one of the lowest tax burdens in the country and one of the lowest government debt burdens per capita”; he “cut taxes on small businesses and delivered a historic property tax cut”; he “protected the state’s Rainy Day Fund, which currently has $6 billion set aside for future needs”.
Here are some things that Perry never speaks about. Texas has the second highest poverty rate among the 50 states, behind only Mississippi. It has the second highest percentage of population without a high school diploma. Texas leads the nation in the percentage of people with no health insurance, over one quarter. It is tied with Mississippi for having the biggest percentage of workers paid at or below the minimum wage.
These facts are just as significant a part of the Texas economic model as the growth of jobs. Low taxes and low social services mean high poverty and poor education. As Governor, here is what Perry has done to deal with these problems. To maintain a balanced budget during the recession, the state just cut $4 billion from K-to-12 public education, about 6% per district. Although unemployment has risen and remained high in Texas, as across the country, Perry refused to accept $555 million in stimulus money for unemployment insurance. Perry has protected his Rainy Day Fund by not using it to help the millions of impoverished Texans.
But this is not an article about Rick Perry. The policies and attitudes I have described in Texas are no invention of his. They are the staple ideas of conservatives around the country: governors in Wisconsin and New Jersey; think tanks in Washington and New York and all over virtual space; Tea Party organizations of American citizens and of billionaires and political operatives; fundamentalist religious organizations; people in every town and city in America. The Republican Party has made these ideas its official creed, and it subjects anyone who thinks differently to withering criticism, even though Republicans themselves have promoted very different ideas in the recent past, often the same Republicans.
None of these conservative talkers mentions the poverty rate in Texas, or anywhere else. It’s embarrassing. If the great state of Texas has so much poverty, with all of the natural and political advantages that its boosters constantly boost, and poverty there has increased since 2000 just as fast as in the rest of the US, then what are we to make of the Texas economic model?
Republicans don’t mention poverty, because they don’t plan to do anything about it. The millions of poor Americans are invisible to Republican politicians. They pretend that trickle-down economics will reach the poor, but it hasn’t and won’t. During the economic disaster of recent years, Republicans have voted against extending unemployment benefits, have demanded cuts in food stamp programs and Head Start, and have ganged up to criticize the first attempt to offer health insurance to all Americans.
For conservatives, poverty is not our collective social problem. It is the individual problem of the poor themselves. They have bad habits and insufficient motivation. They have become willing dependents on welfare programs. They are not really poor, according to the Heritage Foundation, because some of them have TV sets. They don’t count anyway, because they tend not to vote and are disproportionately minorities.
If you try to talk about poverty or inequality, conservatives bring out their litany of curse words: promoter of class warfare, bleeding heart, socialist. Here’s a phrase I wish was in their political vocabulary: social conscience.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, September 13, 2011