BY Bill Reagan
Harlingen’s economic picture is brighter than it was a few years ago. In January 2011, the unemployment rate was 12.1 percent. By April of this year unemployment declined to 6.7 percent. Pretty good, but still forty-two percent higher than the national average.
More people are employed, but it is also true that many have left the workforce. This is the only possible explanation for continued high rates of poverty. The number of people in Cameron County receiving SNAP (Supplement Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits has declined only slightly from a high of 130,927 in 2011 to 127,803 in 2013, the latest year for which data is available from the St. Louis Federal Reserve.
Thirty-four percent of Cameron County residents now live in poverty. Forty seven percent of Cameron County children are poor. According to federal poverty guidelines a family of four is living in poverty if the family income is $24,300 or less per year.
Rates are higher in the county than in the city of Harlingen, but historically the differences are only one or two percentage points. The economy is better in Harlingen than in the rest of the county, but only slightly, and still far less robust than in the country as a whole.
Living wage for a family of four in Texas, both adults working, is $13.70 per hour for each adult, far above the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour. “Living wage” means income sufficient to maintain a normal standard of living. That includes rent, transportation, health insurance, groceries and savings for things like for college.
In Texas, about 22 percent of hourly workers are paid at or below the minimum wage. Cameron County’s rate is most likely higher. About one fourth of the Cameron County workforce has no hope of achieving a normal standard of living.
There is still a lot of work to do.
Bill Reagan is executive director of Loaves & Fishes of the Rio Grande Valley.