Labor Day message: it’s time to promote prosperity for working Texans

By Don Baylor and Leslie Helmcamp

This Labor Day, we hear that the Texas unemployment rate has remained below the national average.  We also hear that Texas has added new jobs every month for the past two years. What we don’t hear is that one out of every seven working families in Texas lives below the poverty line. This compares to one in 10 nationally. So how can this be?

Focusing solely on the unemployment rate and number of jobs added as a measure of our state’s success masks a bigger issue many Texans face every day. Our state economy isn’t creating enough jobs to keep pace with our booming population, and the majority of current jobs aren’t paying enough for many families to get by and get ahead.  As a result, the Texas jobs deficit continues to grow, while hard working Texans face growing financial insecurity.

In Texas, lower-wage employment continues to grow faster than higher-wage jobs. The state is tied with Mississippi for the highest proportion of low-wage jobs, with more than half a million or 10 percent of hourly paid workers in Texas making the minimum wage or less. And more than half of Texas’ jobs pay, on average, less than $36,000 (i.e., about twice the federal poverty rate for a family of three). That means that these jobs do not pay enough for a family of three to meet their basic needs, including rent, food, child care, health care and other necessities. Even more Texans have nothing to fall back on despite their hard work,” with one in two Texans having virtually no “rainy day” savings.

And, Texas has lower levels of education compared to the rest of the country, leaving many Texans at higher risk of becoming unemployed and with too few credentials to move into stable careers. Overall, Texas ranks 49th in the proportion of adults ages 25-54 without a high school degree (18 percent), and 40th in the proportion with an Associate’s Degree or higher (33.3 percent).

What our state needs is a sustained commitment to create more opportunities for Texans to acquire skills and education, earn higher incomes, and build savings and assets. Our policies should encourage growth in good jobs and support businesses, schools, and colleges in providing the training and education necessary for Texans to fill jobs in high-demand occupations.  Instead, Texas continues to emphasize job placement rather than career pathways that move workers up the economic ladder.

Policymakers should move from an unhealthy obsession with job quantity toward an approach that emphasizes job quality, economic mobility, and financial security for working families.

Proven career and workforce readiness training—implemented by community colleges, adult basic education providers, and workforce boards—has the potential to reverse these statewide trends and create more opportunity for Texans in and out of the workforce. One promising practice is to couple basic academic skills training (e.g., GED attainment, college preparation) with technical skills training. This method, known as I-BEST— Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training— has been implemented in parts of Texas to achieve full-time employment, earnings gains, and some type of postsecondary credential.  These tools can create even broader opportunities when taken statewide. 

For too long, Texas has sunk state and federal dollars into low-impact solutions that neither improve skills nor increase wages.   On this Labor Day, it’s time for Texas to turn the page from just counting numbers of jobs to building careers and promoting financial security.  This new focus will create employment and prosperity for working Texans.

Don Baylor, Jr., is Senior Policy Analyst,  Economic Opportunity and Leslie Helmcamp is Policy Analyst at the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

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