COMMENTARY: We must reduce poverty

BY RICHARD F. CORTEZ | SPECIAL TO THE MONITOR

This is the second installment in a four-part series outlining the top priorities of Hidalgo County. Part 1 focused on earning public trust.

If Hidalgo County residents are to enjoy future economic growth and prosperity, we must reduce our poverty rate. The poverty rate in Hidalgo County is published at 29.5%. That is close to twice the rate for the entire state of Texas of 17%, and more than double the U.S. poverty rate of 14%.

That is why I have made identifying and implementing paths out of poverty for Hidalgo County residents one of my administration’s top priorities.

Why is this so important? Because not only does poverty affect 30% of our residents and their quality of life, it is also estimated that 40% of children born in poverty remain in poverty, continuing the cycle that has led Hidalgo County to a disproportionate amount of poverty when compared to other areas of Texas and the country.

These unacceptable poverty rates lead to an increased need for services and social support, while simultaneously suppressing economic development and growth. This places tremendous strain on local government which ultimately translates to increased costs to you the taxpayer.

In 2018, Hidalgo County was able to assist a little more than 5,600 indigent residents with health care at a cost of $15 million. With more than 1 million people living in Hidalgo County, we spent $15 million to serve less than 1% of our population.

When you consider that the county is also required to provide defense attorneys to represent those who cannot afford to pay for their lawyers, at the cost of more than $6.6 million each year, you can begin realizing the heavy burden poverty places on your tax dollars.

Keep in mind that your tax dollars are already funding the Criminal District Attorney’s Office. So, for those who cannot afford legal representation, you are not only paying for the defense, but also for the prosecution. Let me emphasize that the county is required by our state government to provide these and other services; and while we do receive additional funds from both the state and federal governments, the burden ultimately rests with you the taxpayer.

Hidalgo County is the seventhmost- populous county in Texas and in 2018 we spent more than $30 million of your property tax dollars on state-mandated services. As we continue to grow, infrastructure needs and healthcare costs will also continue to grow. It is urgent that we lower the poverty rate in Hidalgo County because doing so will improve the quality of life for all of our residents, it will reduce the burden on taxpayers, and it is good for the economy.

We must do our part to make the old adage ring true: “A rising tide lifts all ships.”

There are few things more deeply ingrained in the American spirit than providing people with a path to prosperity. With increased prosperity comes increased buying power, and when 70% of the U.S. economy is based on personal consumption, higher wages and higher household income leads to increased economic growth. After all, businesses cannot stay in business if people can’t purchase what they sell.

Slowly we can transform the cycle of poverty to a cycle of prosperity where increased economic opportunity draws increased investment, which creates more economic opportunity.

So in closing, do I recognize that poverty has been a persistent issue in Hidalgo County? Yes. Is stepping up to develop solutions for our poverty rate an ambitious and challenging undertaking? Yes. Will this initiative require a creative, innovative, disruptive approach? Absolutely.

That is why I have been meeting with agencies and institutions that are tasked with serving the poor so that we can find the path that will make us more efficient and effective in providing those services at the lowest cost to the taxpayer. To date, those meetings have resulted in the support of UTRGV, Texas A& M, South Texas College, McAllen Housing Authority and Texas Workforce Development. They, along with representatives from the county’s Community Service Agency, Health and Human Services Department, Head Start Program, Urban County and my staff, will form a coalition to begin tackling the issue.

Richard F. Cortez is Hidalgo County judge.