Texas could test one of Biden’s core political bets

The numbers involved are enormous. One recent Urban Institute study showed that more than 1.5 million uninsured Texans could receive health care coverage under the bill, twice as many as in any other state. Another study, by the anti-poverty nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy, found that because Texas has so many low-income kids, it would receive more funding than any other state to expand child care programs — more than $11 billion over just the next three years.

Another provision in the bill expanding access to school nutrition programs for lower-income students through the summer could reach more than 3.6 million kids in Texas, nearly as many as California, even though the Golden State has about 20% more children. Still another analysis found that the bill’s changes in the child tax credit could lift a stunning 535,000 Texas children out of poverty, reducing the state’s elevated current rate of childhood poverty by more than 40%.

The gusher of federal assistance that the Build Back Better legislation would channel toward Texas — assuming the bill eventually clears the Senate and these provisions survive there — will test a central component of Biden’s political strategy: the belief that delivering material benefits to economically strained families will win back voters drawn to conservative Republican messages on cultural and racial issues.
Although Biden narrowed the GOP’s margin of victory in Texas in 2020 — and showed significant gains in the state’s largest metropolitan areas — he still faced cavernous deficits among working-class White voters across the state and suffered surprising erosion among working-class Hispanics, especially near the southern border, where immigration issues are most salient. The broad array of direct benefits the bill would provide, especially to Hispanic families facing elevated levels of poverty, may represent Democrats’ best chance to reverse those trends — if not in the 2022 elections, which may come too soon for these programs to be fully felt, then at least by 2024.

Republicans in Texas, as elsewhere, are mobilizing to disparage the bill as accelerating inflation, raising taxes, discouraging work and rewarding undocumented immigrants. But, notwithstanding those arguments, if a panoramic array of new government benefits that will directly touch millions of families cannot restore Democrats’ ability to compete electorally in Texas, it’s not clear what would.

“When the Senate passes this and the President signs it we will have delivered real benefits to people in their lives, and not for the wealthiest people in this country but for the people that go to work every day, some of whom struggle every day,” Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas told me. “But it’s incumbent on Democrats to go and talk to folks in their communities. People will see the effects over the course of a year or two years and so forth, but you’ve also got to get out there and talk to people about it.”

Bill would strengthen Texas’ social safety net

The Build Back Better legislation could affect Texas so powerfully largely because the state’s long-running economic boom, which has produced dynamic job growth, hasn’t erased the persistence of widespread poverty and economic inequality. In census figures, Texas’ poverty rate (at 14%) was one-third higher than the national average and the poverty rate for children was even higher, at almost 1 in 5. Almost 5 million Texans — about one-fifth of the state’s population below age 65 — lack health insurance, by far the largest number of uninsured in any state. Studies have shown that slightly more than 1 in 5 children in Texas do not regularly get enough to eat, “one of the worst rates of childhood food insecurity in the country,” says Marisa Bono, CEO of Every Texan, a group that advocates for low-income families. Overall, the Annie E. Casey Foundation, in its annual Kids Count ranking, places Texas 46th among the states in overall child welfare.

Across each of these measures, the problems are more acute for African American and Latino families. More than one-quarter of Texas Latinos, for instance, lack health insurance and nearly one-fourth of Latino children (as well as one-fifth of Black children) live in poverty, according to studies by the non-partisan Urban Institute. (Though the large number of undocumented immigrants contributes to these trends, the Urban Institute has found that two-thirds of the state’s uninsured, for instance, are US citizens.)

In many of the preponderantly Latino counties through the Rio Grande Valley, where Trump scored his unexpectedly large gains in 2020 — a list that includes Hidalgo, Starr, Zapata and Cameron — one-third of the population is uninsured and one-fourth to one-third live below the poverty line. In Hidalgo, “we have some that are poor, some that are real poor and some that are real, real, real poor,” says Richard Cortez, the county judge there (the equivalent of a county supervisor). “I’ve seen homes with no electricity or running water. That’s the real, real, real poor.” Even in the booming metropolitan counties centered on Houston and Dallas, one-quarter of non-elderly people are uninsured.

With its low-tax, low-service model for promoting economic growth, Texas’ state policy has largely accepted these disparities. Osborne’s center at the University of Texas has identified five state policies that are most critical in improving outcomes for children and families, including setting a minimum wage higher than the federal floor, creating a state Earned Income Tax Credit for low-income working families and expanding eligibility for Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act; Texas is one of seven states that has adopted none of those policies, she says. The federal legislation “is one of the few chances Texans are going to get to have this sort of system of support, because it’s not likely to come from the state,” Osborne says.

Against that backdrop, the federal legislation could transform the extent of the social safety net in Texas across many fronts. Among them:

Health care — Texas is the largest of the 12 states that have refused to expand eligibility for Medicaid under the ACA; today, eligibility is limited to families earning about one-sixth of the federal poverty rate, which Osborne says is the lowest threshold in the nation. The Democrats’ Build Back Better plan would provide generous ACA health care subsidies for no-cost coverage to those eligible for the Medicaid expansion in the states that refused to participate. That change alone could provide coverage to about 1 million uninsured Texans, according to estimates; additional subsidies in the bill to help somewhat higher-income families buy private coverage on the ACA exchanges would raise the total number of Texans gaining insurance under the legislation to 1.55 million, the Urban Institute has projected. That would be about double the number in the next closest state and would reduce Texas’ uninsured rate by nearly one-third.
Childhood poverty — One of the bill’s most significant changes is to increase the value of the child tax credit — and, as important, make it fully available to families with little, or even no, income. Fully 6.7 million children in Texas, just over half of them Latino, would receive at least some benefit from the expanded credit, the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities has calculated; both the center and the Urban Institute project that the credit would lift about 500,000 kids there above the poverty line.

“It’s hard to overstate the importance of this legislation in reducing child poverty,” says Elaine Maag, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Tax Policy Center. “It’s a very direct benefit, and unlike some of the other policies in the legislation that require the state to act for their population to benefit, this is a federal program, so it doesn’t matter who the governor of your state is, you are going to get the benefit.”

Child care and early childhood education — Because Texas has so many low-income families, the Center for Law and Social Policy recently projected that it will receive even more from the bill’s new child care funding over the next three years than more populous California. With subsidies for child care costs extending well into the middle class, the bill would underwrite care for about 2 million Texas children, Every Texan estimates. The state could be a big winner as well from the bill’s provisions creating universal access to prekindergarten for 3- and 4-year-olds; though the state has made progress on that front, more than two-fifths of eligible children there remain unenrolled, slightly worse than the national average, according to the latest federal figures.

One key to the potential impact: Even if the state refuses to participate in the new universal pre-K program (which most expect), the bill allows cities and counties to join on their own. Democrat Rodney Ellis, a commissioner in Harris County,…

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