By Lauren Rangel
No food. No lights. No heat. No water.
The tragic 2021 winter storm thrust millions of Texans into deprivation they had never known, struggling to ensure that the basic needs of their families were met in the face of seemingly insurmountable hurdles. If you lost power, heat, water, or were worried about where your next meal was coming from, you caught a glimpse of the reality faced by 3.86 million Texans, including 1.5 million Texas’ children, who live every day under constant siege in the unending storm of poverty.
When the winter storm subsided and the power returned, many Texans who have once lived in poverty faced resurfacing trauma. When I opened our refrigerator, the sight of all of the spoiled food brought the weight of our family’s experiences flooding back and I cried for families who would be unable to replace their groceries. I was crying because not so long ago, that was us. When my family lived paycheck to paycheck, programs like the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), and Medicaid kept our children healthy and fed. When we fell behind on payments, a local program to prevent utility shutoff for low-income families was the only thing keeping our lights, water, and heat on. That time in our lives, which should have been filled with memories of our children’s earliest milestones, was marked by the trauma of food insecurity, toxic stress, and a lack of healthcare access. Unfortunately, our story is not uncommon. Children of families who live in poverty are likely to experience these and other adverse childhood experiences (ACES) that negatively affect their development, and increase their risk of becoming involved in the child welfare system.
Although the winter storms have passed, Texas leaders must act now to rescue our children from the ongoing crisis of poverty. This legislative session, legislators have numerous opportunities to combat poverty and improve access to existing state and federal anti-poverty programs, by supporting many filed pieces of legislation some of which are included below.
Increase Healthcare Access
Thousands of Texans have lost their jobs and employer health insurance due to COVID, driving up poverty and uninsured rates. As expanding Medicaid has been shown to increase financial stability and connect more children to coverage, covering all eligible Texans through Medicaid expansion is the most effective strategy Texas can leverage to mitigate the perils of child poverty. Over a dozen bills have been filed to expand Medicaid this legislative session. One coverage expansion bill that takes a different approach to coverage expansion, HB 3871 by Representative Julie Johnson and SB 117 by Senator Nathan Johnson, has gained bi-partisan momentum in the House but requires action by Texas House leadership to receive a hearing.
When parents are financially stable and have access to the health care that they need, they are better equipped to be mentally and physically healthy and effective parents. HB 133 by Representative Toni Rose that recently passed out of the House Human Services Committee, will also help families to have a healthy and happy start.
To ensure that children who are already eligible for Medicaid can keep their coverage once enrolled in the program, the Child Health Coverage Bills, SB 39 by Senator Judith Zaffirini and HB 290 by Representative Philip Cortez, will let these kids keep their Medicaid coverage for 6-12 uninterrupted months so that they don’t lose access to healthcare due to red tape.
Combat Food Insecurity
Food insecurity impacts over 1/5 Texas adults and 1/3 Texas children. Unfortunately, like with Medicaid, many eligible families are unaware that they could access SNAP to bridge gaps. HB 4334 by Representative Ina Minjarez and SB 2082 by Senator José Menéndez will connect more eligible families to these programs by providing them with eligibility information when they enroll their children in school.
Texas leaders can also combat food insecurity by eliminating existing barriers to SNAP access. Currently, Texans can be disqualified for SNAP if their vehicle exceeds certain value limits. Hungry Texans shouldn’t be penalized for having access to transportation which is critical for employment. Bills HB 1230 by Representative Lina Ortega and SB 1914 by Senator Cesar Blanco will reform the outdated vehicle asset test and ensure it is adjusted with inflation. Other efforts to reform the vehicle asset test are HB 2641 by Representative Eddie Rodriguez, HB 1449 by Representative Ramon Romero Jr.
Texas must also stop penalizing eligible family members when the head of household does not meet SNAP work requirements. The entire family loses food assistance when the adult is unable to meet complicated work and training requirements. This Full Family Sanction puts children at needless risk of going hungry. HB 1353 by Representative Lina Ortega and its companion SB 1912 by Senator Cesar Blanco would end this practice.
Fund the Future
A critical step Texas must undertake to address child poverty is to reject proposed cuts to frontline Eligibility and Enrollment staff who help connect families to programs every day. Proposals by the Texas Department of Agriculture to reduce funding to food banks by 5% should also be rejected. When Texans lost power and their food spoiled, community food banks stepped up to ensure that Texans did not go hungry. To cut funding for these critical life preservers in light of what we just experienced would do nothing but make it harder for vulnerable families when the next disaster hits. The budget is a moral document, and if we fail to invest in alleviating the hardships faced by more than a million tiny Texans living in poverty- what does that say about our priorities?
May the memory of this disaster be a mandate for change. No Texas child should endure deprivation in their day-to-day lives. Texas leaders must commit to addressing child poverty, and cease their attacks on public support programs. For families like mine, SNAP and Medicaid were ladders toward economic stability. Texas leaders must invest in them as such. This year, during a legislative session, there is much that we can do, but we cannot continue to leave Texas children out in the cold.