Texas’ unemployment rate continues to drop to record lows, with the state’s rate for May hitting a seasonally adjusted 3.5%, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. That’s the lowest level since the federal government began calculating the rate in 1976.
Those numbers were even lower in Lufkin and Angelina County. Lufkin’s unemployment rate was 3.2% in May, while the county’s jobless rate was 3.4%.
Mike Davis, an economist at Southern Methodist University, told the Texas Tribune the record low unemployment rate isn’t necessarily surprising considering “how fast the Texas economy has been growing.” Though the Cox School of Business lecturer said he stays away from predictions or forecasts, he said the overall outlook for the state looks positive.
“There’s nothing on the horizon that gives me any reason to think that it would change,” he said.
And yet, half of Angelina County’s residents can’t afford to live here, according to a 2018 United Way report. The study, which takes a closer look at the working poor, is titled “Alice: A Study of Financial Hardship in Texas.’’ The study focuses on a population defined as “ALICE,” an acronym for Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed — those who are employed but make too little to consistently sustain their living.
“Our definition of ALICE is a household earning above the poverty line, but less than the basic cost of living,” Laura Bruno, a representative with the national United Way office said.
The number of households living in this threshold varies across the state and across the nation. While Angelina County isn’t the worst in the state, their statistics still show one in two is affected. Of the 18,946 households in Lufkin: 20% lived in poverty and 30% were below the ALICE threshold. Only 50% of the population lived above the ALICE threshold. Countywide, single parents were more likely to be considered ALICE and single mothers were most likely to be impoverished.
The UW report outlined a typical budget for an ALICE household and named it the “Household Survival Budget.”
In Angelina County, for a single person to live on the “Household Survival Budget,” the person can spend no more than $553 for rent, $158 for food a month, $55 on technology and have absolutely no savings. They would be making up to $19,488 yearly.
For two adults, one infant and one preschooler, the household would make up to $49,716 yearly with the added costs of childcare.
“They’re one crisis away from needing social service,” said Donna Bussler, director of the Angelina College Nonprofit Leadership Center. “A lot of them are already receiving social services through (Child Care Management Services) — if both work outside the home — for childcare.”
Other risk factors cited for the working poor include low levels of education and prior incarceration.
Another report, this one by the Southern Education Foundation, reads: “No longer can we consider the problems and needs of low-income students simply a matter of fairness. Their success or failure in the public schools will determine the entire body of human capital and educational potential that the nation will possess in the future.”
That study shows that poverty leads to poor physical health and motor skills, diminishes a child’s ability to concentrate and remember information and reduces attentiveness, curiosity and motivation.
Three of the statistics that support those claims:
■ People who do not earn a high school diploma by age 20 are seven times more likely to be persistently poor between ages 25 and 30.
■ Children who grow up impoverished complete fewer years of schooling and earn much lower income than people who did not grow up poor.
■ Children who grow up poor in the U.S. are more likely to be in poor health.
According to data from the Texas Education Agency, 77.8% of Lufkin ISD students in 2017 were economically disadvantaged. The district had a student population of 8,176. Diboll ISD’s student population in 2017 was 1,903; 66.9% were economically disadvantaged. The other county school districts ranged from 50-60% economically disadvantaged.
While the challenges facing the working poor are numerous, so are the solutions, although they are not quite as obvious.
Both the Lufkin and Diboll school districts have voted to participate in a program by the U.S. Department of Agriculture that provides a free breakfast and lunch for all students. In addition, many schools provide meals during the weekends through Backpack Buddies, a program that provides a backpack full of food that goes home with students on Fridays during the school year.
It’s simple, really: If you’re hungry, you struggle to learn. Providing food to students helps solve that problem, although it doesn’t guarantee those students will go on to finish high school. However, if they do, perhaps they won’t struggle as much with employment.
Bussler said there are three things people need to keep in mind for finding a solution. One, be aware of the population that is considered ALICE and their needs. Two, have strong relief agencies to help them find a way to get ahead. Three, create restorative resources to help the person move up.
Strong relief agencies are imperative because they’re the safety nets for those families, Bussler said. These organizations don’t cover the entire cost of living, but help provide relief in times of need. That’s essential because they’re investing in our people, our communities and our culture.
Bussler’s third step is restoration, which she believes comes back education — enabling people to get different or better paying jobs.
“Many of our families that are ALICE know the dignity of work,” Bussler said. “They want to work. They simply, for whatever constraint, do not make enough to create wealth.”
There will be some who slip through the cracks, while others may face additional barriers, be they language or financial. But if organizations use the ALICE report to create better options for serving the working poor, they will be helping change the fabric of our community.