Thursday, July 3, 2014

Rural poverty in Texas's Rio Grande Valley

The New York Times reported a few days ago out of Gardendale, Texas (LaSalle County), from what it characterized as a colonia, an unincorporated area in the Rio Grande Valley.  The story is a very, very sad one that emphasizes the inequality gap in a place where some are getting rich fast from the oil boom, while others can't feed their families.  That theme is reflected in the headline, "Boom Meets Bust in Texas:  Atop a Sea of Oil, Poverty Digs In."  Manny Fernandez and Clifford Krauss's story features a  28-year-old Latina, Judy Vargas, who works cleaning motel rooms and as a server or cook at local restaurants.  She lives in a trailer and supports her three kids.  Her grandmother, who also works at a motel, lives with her.  At times, as many as 10 family members have lived in their trailer.  Mrs. Vargas's husband is apparently in and out of jail, most recently for a drug offense.  Judy Vargas's world is dismal for sure, but here's some additional local context about the area's "haves":
[A]n expanding natural gas processing plant ... lies in the heart of the Eagle Ford, a giant shale oil field that here in La Salle County alone produces more than $15 million worth of oil a day, or about one out of every 55 barrels produced in the United States.
Needless to say, Vargas and her family aren't "feeling the love" of the oil boom. She states:
It feels the same to us.  The money that they have, we didn’t have it before. And we don’t have it now.
Fernandez and Krauss go on to describe the place in more detail, as well as its place in the history of the war on poverty:
This rural patch of thick mesquite in the brush country south of San Antonio had been known for something else. Five miles from here in Cotulla, Lyndon B. Johnson at the age of 20 saw hardship so searing that it would help inspire his war on poverty.
Colonias are associated with rurality because they are, essentially by definition, unincorporated areas without services.  Indeed, when things go wrong--like the dumping of "fracking sand" on the town's main roads--the law is essentially absent, not stepping in to protect the health and welfare of the place's denizens.
Gardendale has no mayor, no police department, and only a handful of tilting signs and streetlights. It is often used as an illegal dumping ground.
The story highlights other environmental consequences of the oil and gas boom, including poor air quality.  It also notes some economic upsides of the boom:  iPads for all the students at the Cotulla school.   Oh, and a few more downsides:  a housing shortage and rents rising so fast the that the school district had to establish its own trailer park to house its teachers.  

In this sort of place, the county has to pick up the services slack that no municipality bears.  The top elected official in La Salle County is the county judge, Joel Rodriguez, Jr.  He indicates that "the boost in property and sales tax revenue from Eagle Ford activities had been offset by increases in county spending on road repairs, law enforcement, fire safety and administrative functions." He was not laudatory of the oil and gas industry's support for the poor, suggesting that it basically boiled down to public relations and photo ops--like distributing turkeys at the holidays.

We don't know exactly how small (or large) Gardendale is because even wikipedia doesn't have a listing for it. (This story is not about the Gardendale in Ector County, in West Texas).  What we do know is that Cotulla, the town near Gardendale where LBJ taught school, has a population of 3,614.  It is the county seat of LaSalle County, which is definitely nonmetropolitan with an official population of just 7,369.  Note, however, that wikipedia indicates that Cotulla alone, in June 2014, "'self-declared' its population at 7,000 based on utility connections."  This, too, is consistent with colonias, which are often heavily Latino and where we would expect residents to go under-counted by official measures.  Further, LaSalle County has a poverty rate of 23.6%.  Indeed, it is a persistent poverty county, meaning that its poverty rate has been 20% or higher for each of the last four decennial censuses.   Fernandez and Krauss provide this data about the the colonias and the Rio Grande Valley generally, in addition to more specifics about LaSalle County:
An estimated 500,000 people live in about 2,300 colonias in Texas, along its 1,200-mile border with Mexico. Many colonias have benefited from infrastructure improvements in recent years. Others remain institutionalized shantytowns without basic services like water and sewers. 
At least in part because of the oil economy, Gardendale is one of the better-off colonias. The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas found in a report to be released this year that 42 percent of the population of colonias in six Texas border counties — not including La Salle — lived below the poverty line, compared with 14.3 percent nationally. The median annual household income was $29,000. In La Salle County, other studies have shown that 39 percent of children live in poverty.
The story features other "locals" (like a cowboy turned roughneck) and is well worth a read in its entirety.  I first came across a much shorter version of the piece in the International New York Times as I am currently traveling abroad.  The full version in the domestic edition of the paper is much richer and provides a great deal more context for understanding what is happening in this out-of-the way place in south Texas.

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