Lawmakers should focus on strengthening social safety net

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman. 

Two months into 2015, we’ve already seen a series of reports highlighting some of the biggest challenges facing the most vulnerable families in our state. A study from the Southern Education Foundation found that 60 percent of Texas’ public school students are low-income. The Corporation for Enterprise Development found that half of Texas families have little or no emergency savings, leaving them one family emergency away from poverty. And a new report using Kids Count data finds that one in four Texas children lives in poverty.

Amid the wealth of statistics — and there are a lot of them — it can be easy to lose sight of what these numbers represent. They represent parents who are working but aren’t making enough to provide basic care for their families. They represent kids who don’t know where their next meal will come from, or parents who need an extra job but can’t afford child care. They represent the children and families in our state struggling the most, and there are many other families in Texas just one crisis away from joining them.

Fortunately, when these families fall on hard times, we have programs in place to make sure they have a chance to bounce back. Programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, tax credits for working families and housing subsidies have helped dramatically reduce child poverty. In Texas, the poverty rate for children would be nearly 20 percent higher if it weren’t for government interventions, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

Choosing not to support these programs in Texas means cutting off resources to kids and families when they need them the most. As research has shown time and time again, poverty has long-lasting negative effects on kids and the state.

With our state’s strong economic outlook, we might expect that our state legislators would be focused this session on making sure vulnerable families are protected and programs that previously suffered cuts would be restored. Unfortunately, despite the importance of programs designed to support the poorest families in the state, we’ve seen a series of bills filed this session seeking to limit programs serving low-income families, or make them more difficult to access.

Some of these bills create new hoops for families to jump through to get the most basic benefits, such as photo identification to receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits or drug testing to receive financial assistance. Other bills put new restrictions on the families of the very poorest children in the state who receive financial assistance, or eliminate existing education and health care services entirely for certain populations. There have also been calls to further restrict Medicaid, which provides basic health coverage to a population that is almost entirely composed of low-income children, pregnant women, seniors and Texans with disabilities. Collectively, these policies would cause serious harm to families that are already facing substantial hardship.

Establishing new barriers for struggling Texas families threatens to undermine the progress our state has made in reducing the economic burden on low-income families. This legislative session, Texas has the revenue to invest in its people, and we can’t afford the long-term impacts of limiting resources for Texas kids and families when they’re at their most vulnerable.

Alice Bufkin is early opportunities policy associate at Texans Care for Children.