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August 8th, 2013:

How much does it cost to really live in Houston?

Good question.

So what does it cost to secure an “adequate but modest living” in the Houston area?

According to the Economic Policy Institute, it requires an annual income of $63,600 for a family of two adults and two children.

Health care takes up the biggest chunk – $1,380 each month to pay for insurance premiums and out-of-pocket costs – while child care is the second-biggest expense at $961 each month.

Other big monthly expenses for Houston-area residents include $945 for housing, $754 for food and $577 for transportation costs, according to the report based on a variety of government and private data.

“It’s not going out to restaurants,” said Natalie Sabadish, a research assistant at the Economic Policy Institute and co-author of the report released earlier this month. Or money for vacations, savings accounts, Internet, cable and cellphones.

“It’s being able to make ends meet month to month,” Sabadish said.

The nonprofit institute that focuses on the financial situations of low- and middle-income workers calculated what it costs for families to reach a decent living standard in 615 communities and in six types of family configurations. (See the accompanying list to see what the institute believes it takes for a variety of family sizes in the Houston area. For a family of two – one adult and one child – it’s an annual income of $46,540.)

The institute made the calculations to demonstrate what it believes is inadequacy of federal poverty measures. For a family of four, the national poverty threshold is $23,283; Sabadish said that isn’t enough to cover the basics.

The federal poverty line doesn’t take geography into account when it makes its calculations, said Sabadish. It’s the same for a family living in high-cost New York City as one living anywhere else in the nation.

You can read more about the EPI study and its methodology here, and you can play with its budget calculator yourself.

The EPI Family Budget Calculator overcomes many of the shortcomings of the federal poverty line and the Supplemental Poverty Measure by illustrating the income required to afford an adequate standard of living for six family types living in 615 specific U.S. communities. As will be explained in greater detail shortly, that the budgets differ by location is important, since certain costs, such as housing, vary significantly depending on where one resides. Geographical cost-of-living differences are built into the budget calculations by incorporating regional, state, or local variations in prices (depending on item). This geographic dimension of EPI’s family budget measurements offers a comparative advantage over using poverty thresholds, which only use a national baseline in their measurements (e.g., the federal poverty line), or which use a geographic component only for measuring home prices (e.g., the SPM).

Basic family budget measurements are also adjustable by family type because, as illustrated in the following section, expenses vary considerably depending on the number of children in a family and whether a family is headed by a single parent or two parents. The six family types include one or two parents with one, two, or three children.

Out of curiosity, I checked its numbers for some other parts of Texas. These were the results:

Austin = $66,812
Dallas = $64,704
El Paso = $59,890
Fort Worth = $64,456
San Antonio = $61,345

That puts Houston squarely in the middle for Texas’ major urban centers. Note that all of these calculations (and others for Texas – they really covered the state) are based on the entire metropolitan areas, defined either as an MSA or a HUD Metro Fair Market Rent Area, so they cover much more than just the named city. I haven’t done more than just scan all this stuff so I can’t offer a detailed critique of it, but I will say that within any of these metro areas you will find a great deal of variation in the cost of living. It might make more sense to offer a range for these areas rather than a single figure, but that would also likely take a lot more time and effort to determine, and might not be that much more accurate. The point of this study is to make people realize that the federal poverty line is a really low number, one that offers at best a scratched-out, hand-to-mouth existence that is far removed from what those of us in the middle class expect, and that the real cost of living can be much more or much less than any single nationally calculated number. For that, at least, I hope you find this to be thought provoking.

Sheriff Garcia endorses the Early To Rise campaign

It makes sense that he would.

The group attempting to get a 1-cent tax hike on the November ballot to bolster early childhood education programs got a hearty endorsement from Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia on Wednesday, and announced it had cleared the first major hurdle in putting its initiative to voters this fall.

James Calaway, chairman of the so-called Early to Rise campaign, said the group – using volunteer and also paid canvassers, according to its campaign finance report – has collected more than 140,000 signatures on its petition, nearly twice the 78,000 signatures it says it needs to force County Judge Ed Emmett to place the initiative on the ballot. The group will turn the petition in early next week, and promised that a sufficient number of the signatures will be valid as they are from registered voters.

Calaway made the announcement on Wednesday across the street from the main county jail at 1200 Baker Street, where the county’s top lawman hosted a news conference to endorse the program, saying it would help keep kids out of trouble with his deputies and is “far cheaper” than incarceration.

“This is truly an issue of investing now,” Garcia said.

The 1-cent tax hike, which would be levied by the Harris County Department of Education and administered by the private non-profit School Readiness Corporation, would generate $25 million a year for teacher training, school supplies and other supplements at low-performing childcare centers in the county serving children up to age 5.

While several members of the Department of Education board of trustees said recently they would not support the plan unless they are able to have more immediate oversight – including appointing a member to the School Readiness Corporation board – Calaway said the group is working up a “multi-page agreement” with the agency and expects it to endorse the plan.

See here, here, and here for the background. I’m glad to see that Early To Rise is working out an agreement with the HCDE on oversight, because that was the biggest concern I had with this. HCDE should have some direct responsibility here. I look forward to seeing what that agreement has to say.

A press release announcing the Sheriff’s endorsement is here. The reason why I say that it makes sense for Sheriff Garcia to endorse this can be summed up in the following comment he made in that release:

“This is truly an issue of pay me now, or pay me later. We either need to pay for better early childhood education now, or we will end up paying for more inmates later, we either help our youngsters succeed when they’re 4 or we have to pay for the consequences when they’re 24”.

Surely no reasonable person disputes that. The main dispute over this campaign has been an existential one of process.

The third hurdle may not be so easy to clear, though: County Judge Emmett is still saying he thinks the law dictating the petition process does not apply, and has asked for opinions from the county attorney’s office and the state attorney general.

“I’ve said from the beginning I don’t think this law is really applicable,” Emmett said this week. “I’ve always assumed they’re going to turn in signatures.”

Lisa Falkenberg, who has explored this disagreement before, continues that exploration.

On Monday, Emmett requested an opinion on the petition from Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott. He asked if the old law under which the petition was devised is still in effect and, if so, whether Emmett has the authority to reject the petition if it doesn’t “substantially follow” the language of the statute. Of course, Emmett has already decided that the petition’s language doesn’t follow the statute closely enough.

There’s only one problem with Emmett’s request. As county judge, he is not one of the officials authorized by Texas statute to request an opinion from the attorney general.

A technicality? Yes. But shouldn’t a guy holding others accountable to the sometimes inane technicalities of Texas law be holding himself to the same standard?


Jonathan Day, former Houston city attorney and an Early to Rise board member, said he doesn’t understand Emmett’s focus on hyper-technical aspects of the petition.

“I’m just perplexed that he filed the request himself,” Day said. “I think the statute is very straightforward. It doesn’t require a law degree to determine that he’s not an official who under the law is authorized to ask for an opinion.”

Day maintained that the petition is on firm legal ground and called Emmett’s nit-picking arguments “illogical.”

I’m nowhere near qualified to arbitrate this one, so go read Falkenberg’s column and see what you think. I don’t have a big problem with Judge Emmett asking for the AG’s opinion, even if he’s technically not supposed to, but if he really is technically not supposed to then I fully expect that the AG will reply by telling him to follow the rules as written. That is the “conservative” thing to do, right? Be that as it may, I fully expect this to wind up in court one way or another, and I won’t be surprised if the issue surfaces again in 2015 when the Lege reconvenes and another bill to abolish the HCDE gets filed. As Judge Emmett is a supporter of that effort, that could be an issue in his re-election campaign as well. We’ll see what happens with this election first.

Whitmire draws a primary opponent

Damian LaCroix

Texpatriate notes that 2010 judicial candidate Damian LaCroix is mounting a challenge to Sen. John Whitmire in SD15. This directly concerns me, as I was redistricted into SD15 in 2011 after having been in SD06 since moving to the Heights. His website is here, his Facebook page is here, and LaCroix did a judicial Q&A with me for the 2010 primary, which he ultimately lost to Cheryl Thornton. His priorities page is pretty thin right now – I don’t disagree with anything he’s saying, but there’s nothing there to indicate why SD15 would be better off with a rookie Senator than one with approximately a thousand years of seniority who was recently given national recognition for his work on juvenile justice reform.

New blood is essential, to be sure – I talked about this in the context of SD06 when there had been talk about Sylvia Garcia challenging the late Sen. Gallegos in the 2012 primary. That never happened, but as things turned out Garcia is now Sen. Garcia, having won a special election to succeed Sen. Gallegos after his passing. In any event, while I’m as ready for a “next generation of leaders” to step up as anyone, there needs to be some rationale for any given target. I’m not always Sen. Whitmire’s biggest fan, but offhand I see no reason to replace him. Unlike some other Senators I could name, replacing Whitmire isn’t a surefire upgrade. What is the argument that Damian LaCroix, or anyone else for that matter, will be better for me, for the Democratic Senate caucus, and for Democratic priorities overall? I’m open to hearing such an argument, since no one is entitled to a seat, but it has to be made. LaCroix had not yet begun to make it.

On a side note, SD15 has the third highest concentration of African-American voters of any Senate district:

Dist % Black % White % Hispanic ======================================= 13 58.2 17.6 17.1 23 49.7 24.1 23.3 15 28.1 41.3 24.4 10 19.1 60.7 15.7 01 17.9 75.0 5.2 06 16.9 23.8 56.3 04 14.9 71.9 10.2

Percentages are all CVAP. Districts 13 and 23 are the only two Senate districts currently held by African-Americans, Sens. Rodney Ellis and Royce West. I had wondered when I first looked at this if the 2011 redistricting had substantially changed the racial and ethnic composition of the district, but a look at the data from the previous plan suggests not. Those numbers are VAP and not CVAP, so they’re not a straight apples-to-apples comparison. I’ll bet the much higher Hispanic number from before 2011 would drop considerably, and the Anglo and African-American numbers would rise accordingly, if CVAP were used. What that says is that 1) on the face of it at least, Sen. Whitmire is no more vulnerable to a primary challenge than he was before, and 2) LaCroix can make some headway appealing to African-American voters, but probably not enough to win. He’ll need a broad coalition, which gets back to my earlier point about making the argument why he would represent an upgrade. He will have his work cut out for him.

Texas blog roundup for the week of August 5

The Texas Progressive Alliance thinks that the Legislature is once, twice, three times a fiasco as it brings you this week’s roundup.