Texas could test one of Biden’s core political bets
The numbers involved are enormous. One recent Urban Institute study showed that more than 1.5 million uninsured Texans could receive health care coverage under the bill, twice as many as in any other state. Another study, by the anti-poverty nonprofit Center for Law and Social Policy, found that because Texas has so many low-income kids, it would receive more funding than any other state to expand child care programs — more than $11 billion over just the next three years.
Another provision in the bill expanding access to school nutrition programs for lower-income students through the summer could reach more than 3.6 million kids in Texas, nearly as many as California, even though the Golden State has about 20% more children. Still another analysis found that the bill’s changes in the child tax credit could lift a stunning 535,000 Texas children out of poverty, reducing the state’s elevated current rate of childhood poverty by more than 40%.
Republicans in Texas, as elsewhere, are mobilizing to disparage the bill as accelerating inflation, raising taxes, discouraging work and rewarding undocumented immigrants. But, notwithstanding those arguments, if a panoramic array of new government benefits that will directly touch millions of families cannot restore Democrats’ ability to compete electorally in Texas, it’s not clear what would.
“When the Senate passes this and the President signs it we will have delivered real benefits to people in their lives, and not for the wealthiest people in this country but for the people that go to work every day, some of whom struggle every day,” Democratic Rep. Joaquin Castro of Texas told me. “But it’s incumbent on Democrats to go and talk to folks in their communities. People will see the effects over the course of a year or two years and so forth, but you’ve also got to get out there and talk to people about it.”
Bill would strengthen Texas’ social safety net
Across each of these measures, the problems are more acute for African American and Latino families. More than one-quarter of Texas Latinos, for instance, lack health insurance and nearly one-fourth of Latino children (as well as one-fifth of Black children) live in poverty, according to studies by the non-partisan Urban Institute. (Though the large number of undocumented immigrants contributes to these trends, the Urban Institute has found that two-thirds of the state’s uninsured, for instance, are US citizens.)
In many of the preponderantly Latino counties through the Rio Grande Valley, where Trump scored his unexpectedly large gains in 2020 — a list that includes Hidalgo, Starr, Zapata and Cameron — one-third of the population is uninsured and one-fourth to one-third live below the poverty line. In Hidalgo, “we have some that are poor, some that are real poor and some that are real, real, real poor,” says Richard Cortez, the county judge there (the equivalent of a county supervisor). “I’ve seen homes with no electricity or running water. That’s the real, real, real poor.” Even in the booming metropolitan counties centered on Houston and Dallas, one-quarter of non-elderly people are uninsured.
Against that backdrop, the federal legislation could transform the extent of the social safety net in Texas across many fronts. Among them:
“It’s hard to overstate the importance of this legislation in reducing child poverty,” says Elaine Maag, a senior research associate at the Urban Institute’s Tax Policy Center. “It’s a very direct benefit, and unlike some of the other policies in the legislation that require the state to act for their population to benefit, this is a federal program, so it doesn’t matter who the governor of your state is, you are going to get the benefit.”
One key to the potential impact: Even if the state refuses to participate in the new universal pre-K program (which most expect), the bill allows cities and counties to join on their own. Democrat Rodney Ellis, a commissioner in Harris County, centered on Houston, says that even if the state rejects the money, the county will likely vote to participate. Amid persistent poverty and inequality, he says, the bill offers “a once-in-a-generation opportunity … to change the trajectory of communities that have disproportionately been left out of significant investments.”
“In my district one of the biggest problems we have is the ability of people to afford their medicines, and insulin in particular,” says Castro. “People are struggling with that every day in San Antonio, so this will be a godsend for them.”
Other benefits — Although precise figures aren’t available, local experts believe Texas may have a disproportionate number of multigenerational households, particularly in low-income communities, which means the state could benefit disproportionately from the bill’s big increase in funding for home health care and elder care services. At the other end of the generational ladder, nearly half of the state’s low-income women of child-bearing age are uninsured, Osborne says, which has contributed to Texas’ elevated rates of infant and maternal mortality. They will benefit from another bill provision requiring states to provide one year of health insurance for new mothers and children. “This stands to have a huge impact on the well-being of infants and moms,” Osborne says.
This broad array of policies looking to bolster low-income and working-class Texans could have a synergistic effect by channeling substantially more money into depressed communities, says Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas, who represents a district in El Paso where nearly one-quarter lack health insurance and almost one-fifth are poor. “This is going to be transformative not just for families and individuals … but for communities,” she said in an interview. “In a community like El Paso that has been economically disadvantaged, when its families have more money in their pockets at the end of the day … what do they do with it? They buy their kids clothes. They take their family to restaurants or a movie. They are able to get into a home they have been dreaming about. These are the things that fuel economic growth and prosperity not just for families and individuals but for communities.”
But can Democrats sell it in the state?
The political question is whether this towering wave of new federal assistance will change the equation in a state Republicans have dominated since George W. Bush’s first election as governor in 1994. The 2020 election presented a mixed picture for Democrats. Even as Biden, powered by gains in the largest cities, reduced the GOP’s margin of victory (to 6 points, from 9 in 2016), Democrats failed to make down-ballot gains in congressional or state legislative races, a bitter disappointment after their advances on both fronts in suburban districts during the 2018 midterm elections.
“If you increase people’s economic security in non-college communities of color, we can increase turnout,” says James Aldrete, a longtime Democratic consultant in the state.
An even greater problem may be whether Texas Democrats have the campaign organization and infrastructure to publicize and claim credit for the new provisions — or to rebut Republican arguments against the new spending.
“Those kind of benefits, they exist objectively as numbers but you have to work to turn them into political capital,” says James Henson, director of the Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “And I’m not sure, either nationally or at the state level, there is any evidence the Democrats are prepared to do that.”
While the bill’s benefits for Latino families could be “extraordinary,” adds Lydia Camarillo, president of the Southwest Voter Registration Education Project, “Democrats can’t assume … it is going to trickle down and turn out voters” without a more effective communications campaign than the party has usually proved capable of in Texas.
Mackowiak sees similar potential vulnerabilities in the bill and points to the preponderantly Hispanic South Texas counties as a critical proving ground for Biden’s belief that kitchen-table benefits can reverse the movement among working-class voters toward the GOP on other issues, particularly immigration and border security. “That’s a great test,” he says. “Where does Starr County and Cameron County go? If BBB passes and it has those things in the final bill … how does that balance out? I generally think economic issues always win out, but these border issues are public safety, public health. It appears down there that the Biden administration is out of touch or making the problem far, far worse than it need be.”
The legislation Texas Republicans have passed making it tougher to vote and the GOP’s aggressive partisan gerrymanders in the state’s recently approved congressional and state legislative maps only add to the hurdles Democrats face in the state.
Even with these obstacles, if the bill passes, by 2024 millions of Texans will be directly benefiting from its provisions. Many more families will have health insurance, fewer will be poor and more will have access to early childhood education and affordable child care, as well as help caring for elderly parents and other benefits. For years, Texas Democrats have beseeched the party to spend millions of dollars on campaign television ads to make the case for the party’s priorities; the Build Back Better bill would trumpet those priorities with billions of dollars in tangible assistance to families across the state.
“It’s a generational investment and benefit to these communities, and it’s in contrast to what was done with the 2017 tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the largest corporations by the Trump administration,” says Castro. “If we can’t go out there and sell this, then we have bigger problems than I thought.”