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CAN presents facts about poverty in Austin, Travis County

Tuesday, January 12, 2010 by Jacob Cottingham

While Austinites typically celebrate the city’s quality of life rankings and expensive condos pop up across town, representatives from the Community Action Network on Monday heard several presentations detailing a grimmer side of the city—poverty.


Chantel Bottoms, CAN program associate outlined the “dashboard indicators” of the depth of regional poverty. She told the two-dozen CAN board members that “in order to meet your basic needs, one must earn at least 200 percent of federal poverty level,” which was their definition of “low income.”  For a family of four the poverty level is $21,200 a year.


Bottoms presented several charts depicting the distribution of low income in the region. Travis County has 32 percent of its residents in such circumstances. That number climbs to 35 percent for the City of Austin. In the county, more than 40 percent of those in low income households are under 18. The elderly comprise around 20 percent of those considered low income. Nearly 64 percent of children in low-income households have a single parent.


Ellen Balthazar of Any Baby Can and the Basic Needs Coalition Advocacy Committee presented fact sheets and FAQs outlining in greater detail the scope of poverty in the region. The Basic Needs Coalition is a partnership among more than 40 different non-profits and government agencies focused on “heightening the Austin and Central Texas communities’ understanding of the breath and depth of poverty.” To that end, Balthazar explained that in Travis County 144,336 people – one in seven citizens – were below the federal poverty level. That 15 percent rate beats the national average by two points but is lower than the 16 percent figure for the state.


Furthermore, Balthazar said that 84 percent of eligible households in the county do not receive any type of cash assistance from the government, while 72 percent of eligible families do not receive food stamps. She said “these numbers have been about the same since 2005 when we became guinea pig for the eligibility system for the state.”


The numbers are even startling when the metric is low-income. Approximately one in three Travis County residents are considered low income. For children and youth under the age of 18, a staggering 41 percent are considered low-income. It is likely even worse. Because the numbers are from 2008 she said, “Arguably the data we are showing is more favorable than the real situation.”


“In this beautiful community where we think the quality of life is about as good as it gets, there are over 144,000 individuals living on virtually nothing,” Balthazar said. Ironically, the cost of living with virtually nothing adds up for the state. Poverty costs Texas $57.5 billion annually, she said.


Balthazar also brought up the state’s number of uninsured children. Texas consistently has more uninsured children than any other state. That number includes 18 percent of the children in Travis County. “A poor child is four times more likely than their middle class counterpart to develop a chronic illness in their lifetime,” she said, quoting a study by the American Academy of Pediatrics. She pointed out that poverty is more prevalent with female heads of households, whether or not they also have children. She noted that the key issues for low income families are the cost of childcare, transportation, healthcare and housing, which are compounded by the lack of education and a living wage.


Katie Navine, the vice president of Workforce Development Services with Goodwill of Central Texas highlighted some of the current activities of the Basic Needs Coalition in its fight against poverty. The Best Single Source effort and partner agencies provides rent, utility or mortgage assistance to households in a financial crisis who are in danger of becoming homeless. The Rapid Re-Housing effort is a collaborative pilot project that attempts to place homeless and nearly so into permanent housing.


Finally, Frances Deviney and Celia Hager with the Center for Public Policy Priorities on future action that could reduce poverty.  Deviney remarked that the state’s impoverished population “should be seeing an increased number of people because of increased unemployment,” and asked, “Is the system where it needs to be in order to handle this influx?”


She said a major problem with the 1.5 million uninsured children in Texas was “never reaching all of the eligible kids” half of whom are eligible under the current rules. She said the state needs to do a “little better outreach” and “perhaps add several hundred workers to the eligibility system.” Similarly, she said even if healthcare reforms add an expected 1 million adults to Texas Medicaid by 2013, they won’t be receiving benefits if efforts aren’t made to improve system capacity and fiscal ability to deliver.

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