To save the American dream in Texas, focus on providing opportunity

Photo by Shelby Knowles

The American Dream isn’t dead, but in Texas, it needs a dose of medicine. That’s not a political statement, just an objective reading of the data. The data tell us we have work to do if we hope to meet the goals set to help the state continue to thrive economically.

Sure, many parts of the state — mainly the metropolitan areas and, especially, some of the suburbs — continue to thrive. Even Houston is doing fine, despite a prolonged slump in oil prices that dramatically slashed energy payrolls. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas recently rated the city’s outlook “positive” after a brief downturn related to Hurricane Harvey.

But a recent report on social mobility in Texas offered policymakers at the state, regional and local levels clear evidence that large portions of the state’s population are falling behind on a variety of measures of well-being, from education and income to teen births. All of those data points suggest inter-generational mobility, or the likelihood that children will do better than their parents, is stalling in some parts of the state.

Opportunity, it turns out, partly depends on where, and in what circumstances, you are born. Fixing that to ensure Texas has the skilled workforce it will need for the information economy of the future needs to be a priority.

Many of our policymakers get it. The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board set a goal that by 2030, at least 60 percent of Texans ages 25-34 will have post-secondary degrees or certificates. Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner established a task force to address inequality within the city.

But people continue to be left behind, and it is up to state and local leaders to address the widening gap in skills and social mobility.

Among the findings of the report, produced by the Hobby School of Public Affairs:

  • The Rio Grande Valley has the highest number of negative factors for social mobility, from high poverty to births to teen mothers and low education levels.
  • Metropolitan regions, especially the region including Austin, have fewer negative indicators. Students in the Austin area report the highest standardized test scores in elementary and middle school and the highest scores on college admissions tests.
  • Teen mothers are most common in the Rio Grande Valley and west Texas.
  • Gini coefficients in all areas of the state — a common measure of income inequality — top the average for members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. In fact, Texas ranked on par with Cameroon, Ecuador and Peru on the inequality index.

Some of the key findings were expected. The Rio Grande Valley and Austin are, in many respects, far more than 350 miles apart.

Even so, there were surprises. Educational attainment is linked to higher income. But while people with at least a high school diploma were less likely to be poor across most of the state, more than one in four adults with a high school diploma in the Lower Rio Grande Valley lives in poverty.

So what do we do with this information?

First, it is important to create a data platform that tracks people over time to develop a more detailed picture of opportunity in Texas, but we already know our state is too diverse for one-size-fits-all solutions. Moreover, this type of data also can show how people rebound economically. We know from national studies using this type of data there is a good deal of dynamism in economic mobility. Are there policies that assist in economic rebound and overall resilience?

Second, policies should provide choice; both early childhood education and job training might, and probably should, look different in Dallas than they do in West Texas. Policies should also promote a favorable business environment, which is critical to enable local firms and companies to create job opportunities for individuals with better training and education. Any options will need to be backed by resources, both public and private.

Resources especially should be targeted to areas where opportunity and social mobility is most lacking. Might the cities where opportunity is flourishing protest the flow of public monies to areas that are sparsely populated? Perhaps, but those rural areas may also be good places for inexpensive pilot programs to learn what works.

If public policy follows the data, we can restore opportunity and, with it, save the American Dream.

Disclosure: The University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.

Jim Granato

Executive director, Hobby School of Public Affairs, University of Houston

John Antel

Economist, University of Houston

M.C. Sunny Wong

Economist, University of Houston