A plea to lawmakers: Address child poverty

Photo by Robert W. Hart

One of the most vivid memories from my childhood is the day I was given permission to leave my Head Start class to be interviewed by a Garland Daily News reporter who was covering child welfare.

I never quite figured out why they picked me over the other students in the class that day. I was 6 years old and the daughter of a single mother who worked two jobs. But I was hardly unique.

Still, being interviewed made me feel special. I remember telling the reporter about my neighborhood and that I wanted to be a teacher when I grew up.

It was 1973, a time when child poverty was drawing state and national attention. The Head Start program, part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s War on Poverty, was relatively new.

In the four decades since that day, I’ve come a long way. I became the first member of my family to graduate from college, and I eventually made my way to the state Capitol, where I worked for nearly 20 years.

But coming across a clipping of that newspaper article this year — the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s War on Poverty — reminded me how far we still have to go in addressing child poverty in Texas.

Consider these facts:

  • In Texas, 1.8 million children — 26 percent of the state’s young people — live in poverty.
  • Child poverty costs the U.S. about $500 billion per year in economic and educational outcomes. A 2006 University of Washington study estimated that the annual costs of child poverty in Texas were nearly $60 billion.
  • According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation, only nine other states have higher child poverty rates than Texas: Mississippi, Arkansas, New Mexico, Louisiana, Kentucky, Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and Arizona.

While there is no shortage of studies about the financial impact of child poverty, the consequences extend far beyond the economic toll. The failure to address the issue only worsens the stigma of poverty for children and puts the American Dream even further beyond their reach.

Of course, government alone cannot solve every problem related to child poverty. There are crucial roles for civic organizations, businesses and everyday Texans to play. 

But based on my experience at the Capitol, I know that our state lawmakers can play a role, too. What is needed, more than anything, is action.

Our lawmakers should take a cue from leaders who have known the importance of facing a challenge without waiting for the perfect time or circumstance. It may be a lofty comparison, but I’m reminded of the words of encouragement Teddy Roosevelt offered to the Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War: “Do what you can with what you have where you are.”

When the 2014 election season ends and next year’s legislative session begins, lawmakers will come to Austin with ideas about how to improve government, education, the economy and a host of other issues. They will engage in heated debates and face tight deadlines as they try to pass a state budget and other legislation that addresses the state’s most critical needs.

I hope they make helping the 1.8 million Texas children living in poverty a top priority. 

Denise Davis

Partner at Davis Kaufman PLLC; former chief of staff to House Speaker Joe Straus