Rick Perry's 'Texas Miracle' Includes Crowded Homeless Shelters, Low-Wage Jobs, Worker Deaths
AUSTIN, Texas -- It was 105 degrees outside late last week when Vanessa Surita, 24, planted herself on the sidewalk and stretched her legs. Her young daughter sat in a stroller within arms length, outside the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless. Her needs were great: housing, a job, a high school diploma. She could mark progress in job applications filled out.
A local pizza chain, a Pizza Hut, a local grocery chain, a Family Dollar -- each the equivalent of a professional lottery ticket.
"I just recently tried to apply at Whataburger," Surita said. "It's been like two weeks ... I've been calling them. They still haven't had a chance to look at my application. There are like 2,000 people that apply every month, so I don't know."
Surita said she and her 21-month-old daughter crash at her sister's place with her two children. "We've been on the waiting list for housing since she was born," she said.
A few days earlier, Kelly Johnson waited patiently in a corner by ARCH's entrance. She sat hugging her backpack. She had lost her job at Subway a month ago. She found temp work sticking price tags on clothes in a warehouse. It was two days a week, and neither day was a sure thing. It did little to prevent her from ending up homeless. Last week was her first without a roof over her head.
"It feels helpless. It feels horrible," Johnson, 31, said. She had a series of jobs she wanted in mind. "I'm looking for customer service, call center, housekeeping like in hotels at the Marriott or "maybe the Omni." One day, she said, she dreams of working in an office, maybe as a paralegal.
Surita and Johnson do not fit in the prevailing narrative about the Lone Star state. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, Texas has created more jobs in the last year than any other state. These job openings have become known as the much-hyped, "Texas Miracle." In his February 2011 state-of-the-state address, Governor Rick Perry boasted: "Our economic strength is no accident. It's a testimony to our people, our entrepreneurs, and, yes, to the decisions made in this building. Employers from across the country and around the world understand that the opportunity they crave can be found in Texas, and they're headed our way, with jobs in tow."
Should he ultimately choose to run for the White House, Perry will be spending a lot of his time on the stump repeating those lines. Dig beneath the talking points and you find a more troubling picture: rising unemployment, a glut of low-wage jobs without benefits, overcrowded homeless shelters and public schools facing billions in budget cuts. Surita and Johnson have been airbrushed from the miracle. But they still can be found on the housing waiting lists and shelter entrances.
"If you want a bad job, go to Texas," said Texas Rep. Garnet Coleman (D), who represents a district in Houston, in an interview with The Huffington Post. "If you want to work at Carl's Jr., our doors are open, and if you want to go to a crumbling school in a failing school system, this is the place to come."
The state capital, with its expanded skyline and renovated office parks, will surely be b-roll in any Perry campaign ad. But Austin -- like many across the country -- simply hasn't witnessed across-the-board job stability.
There's a crowd outside the ARCH no matter the heat. The building was designed for 100 dormitory beds, but now sleeps 215 -- including 115 men sleeping on mats on the a second floor dining room and a conference room floor. Even then, Mitchell Gibbs, the director of development and communications, said they are turning away 15 to 50 men a night.
"Austin is supposed to be ground zero of the Texas Miracle," explained Doug Greco, lead organizer with Austin Interfaith, a nonpartisan group of some 30 congregations, schools and unions. "But we have the higher poverty rate and higher child poverty rate--nearly one in three children." He added that the need for shelter, food and clothing has spiked in the city. "It doesn't take much to pierce through the rhetoric," he said.
Texas is struggling right along with every other state. According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics, Texas had recently bumped up to 8.2 percent unemployment in June which puts it below the national average. Still plenty of states without miracles posted lower unemployment rates; New York, Virginia, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Wisconsin, among others are all out performing Texas. Drill down even further into the numbers and there are plenty of residents that haven't felt the miracle.
In May, job growth slowed statewide. According to a recent report in the Houston Chronicle, Houston's not seasonally adjusted unemployment rate jumped to 9 percent. The unemployment rate has hit double digits in the Rio Grande Valley. In Hildago County, it's 12 percent. Quality of life indexes like child poverty rates put Texas further behind. State Sen. Judith Zaffirini (D) told The Huffington Post her state ranks 48th in teen birth rates, 50th in prenatal care and 46th in income disparity -- and 50th in the number of persons who receive a high school diploma by age 25.
With Texas' minimal regulation and low taxes -- and Perry's cheerleading -- a spike in job growth during the past few years became known as the Texas Miracle. The rise in oil and gas prices, as well as a long-time state law protecting homeowners, helped stave off the recession for a while. And as a result, a miracle myth was created, with little exploration as to what impact Perry's policies actually had on the economic picture. The miracle is that anyone would call minimum-wage jobs a miracle. Of the all the jobs in Texas created last year, 37 percent paid at or below minimum wage -- and the state leads the nation in total minimum wage workers, according to a recent New York Times report.
"The important thing to do is not to just count jobs but to look at what kinds of jobs are being created in Texas," explained Dick Lavine, a Senior Fiscal Analyst with the Center for Public Policy Priorities. "Texas is tied for last with Mississippi for the highest percentage of minimum wage jobs and Texas is by far the leader of residents who don't have health insurance. It's low wage jobs without any benefits."
This resonates with Gibbs at the ARCH, which created a 100-bed unit on the third floor for homeless night-shift workers who needed a place to sleep during the day. These workers, Gibbs said, included bakers from downtown hotels who simply couldn't afford Austin rents.
The ARCH may want to think about expanding its homeless worker unit. If there is continued job growth in Texas, the trend continues to point toward the low-skilled, low-wage variety. According to a just-released Georgetown University study, Texas ranks 41 among all 50 states in the percentage of jobs requiring post-secondary education.
HuffPost readers: If you've become recently unemployed in Texas or struggle with a low-wage job in the Lone Star State, we want to hear from you. Tell us your stories by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. Please include your phone number if you're willing to do an interview.
When it comes to budget gaps, Texas is just like much of the rest of the country. This year, the state faced a projected budget shortfall totaling as much as $27 billion; the legislature also had to contend with a $4.3 billion deficit in its current budget. The state made massive across-the-board cuts to state agencies -- including $4 billion in public school cuts over two years. Perry and the state legislature also ended up closing out funding for pre-kindergarten programs for roughly 100,000 low-income children. Mass layoffs of public sector workers is expected.
The Texas Miracle may become part of Perry's national pitch, but it's nonsense to state Sen. Zaffrini. "Talking about the so-called 'Texas Miracle," she said in an emailed statement, "is at best disingenuous because it ignores the state's shameful national standing in terms of supporting education and helping the neediest of the needy."
Nor has there been much in the way of adequate job protections. Texas still ranks as the most dangerous state for worker safety. An April study [PDF] produced by the University of Texas and the Workers Defense Project stated that one in five construction workers were injured on the job, while only 45 percent had workers' compensation. The study also noted that a worker dies every 2.5 days and the state sees 16,900 job-related accidents annually.
Emily Timm, a policy analyst with the Workers Defense Project, said that roughly 45 percent of the more than 300 workers surveyed reported being paid wages below the federal poverty line. And one in five workers complained that their employers had paid them less than what they were owed. Being allowed adequate drinking water is even an issue. Nearly a third of the workers surveyed reported that their employers did not provide them with access to drinking water.
Timm said her organization has only seen a further rise in worker problems. "We're seeing more complaints of wage theft than we ever have before," she said. "We're also seeing more and more workers being misclassified as independent contractors." That distinction can be crucial, she said, as it allows the construction companies to not deduct taxes from their paychecks as well as skirt minimum wage and overtime requirements.
In Austin, that lack of income growth has been met with increasing rents and state cuts to safety-net services. This past year, rents have gone up by more than 4 percent. Fred Krebs, a pastor with the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in central Austin, said he's noticed an increasing number of his congregants are having trouble keeping up. "People's economic level in my congregation has clearly gone down in the last few years," he said. "That's been very clear ... We've had to help our members with meals. Sometimes just $20 to make sure they have milk and eggs and bread ... We just helped a member buy glasses. It was either the glasses or their place to live."
Every Saturday morning, Pastor John Elford serves a free breakfast at University United Methodist Church for Austin's neediest. The number of residents waiting in line, he said, has recently shot up from from 375 to 500.
Elford remembered one family that stuck out. They had left California in the hopes of finding their own piece of the Texas Miracle in Austin. They were in their mid-to-late '30 with two elementary-school aged kids. Things didn't work out so much. "They ran out of money," he said. "They came to us."
Elford's church collected enough money to put the family up in a motel for week. "When I talked with them, they were just worn out from living here and there," he said. At the end of the week, the family moved back to California to live with relatives.