‘Poverty is a tough and persistent challenge for the Rio Grande Valley’

BY Bill Reagan

I have been writing “Reagan on Service” for five years now.

As executive director of Loaves & Fishes, it’s my job to be informed on social issues. This column has helped me dig deeper and look for ways to present this important information to the wider community.

Poverty is a tough and persistent challenge for the Rio Grande Valley. The unemployment rate is down compared to five years ago, so is the poverty rate, though to a lesser degree. There are more jobs, but they are not generally high paying jobs.

A minimum wage job pays about $15,000 per year (gross pay). That’s enough for an individual to escape poverty. Not enough for a family. A family of four needs an income about double the minimum wage to escape from poverty. Many poor families are one parent (usually headed by the mother) households.

But it is not just the economy.

Residents of Rio Grande Valley are more likely to be obese than people elsewhere in the country. Consequently, Rio Grande Valley residents suffer from higher rates of diabetes and heart disease. Mental health services are worse than inadequate in our region. Taken together, these health issues push up poverty rates.

Education is a bright spot. High school graduation rates are much better than they were when I moved to Harlingen fifteen years ago. Our new university and medical school provide opportunities unattainable for local students only a few years ago.

Strong family ties prevented many young people from pursuing higher education in the past because higher education meant moving away from home. Young people do not need to go elsewhere to find educational opportunities any longer.

I am glad to have been able to write about character, personal development and faith issues as well in this column. These are the issues that really count. Poverty, and the stressors that accompany it, can certainly be difficult to deal with. I know. I’ve been poor. Poverty is not a moral failing. Escaping poverty won’t make you happy. Being rich does not make you a better person, nor does being poor.

Our national mood is tense and polarized. It is easy to see things as black or white, good guys or bad guys, us versus them. In times like ours we are tempted to look for easy solutions to complex issues, to blame victims for their misfortune and demonize those we disagree with.

Stephen Covey encouraged his readers to “seek first to understand, then to be understood” in his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Writing a short, weekly column forces one to boil down issues to their essence, to strip away preconceptions and prejudices and think honestly about what’s really going on.

I can only hope these short commentaries help you do the same.

Bill Reagan is executive director of Loaves & Fishes of the Rio Grande Valley.