Texas has long been known as the state with big hair and a big heart. While the big hair is still true, the big-heartedness has waned. Yes, there are many great things here, but the ‘greatness’ has dimmed because of its policies and their results. This feels like cognitive dissonance — although many folks still proclaim how awesome Texas is, evidence contradicts this.
The state of Texas and I have not had the easiest of relationships. I started out loving it. Texas is the home state of my father (a Dallas native) and it was the state in which I went to college and met my husband. During that time, I got to enjoy Ann Richards as governor, Molly Ivins and Jim Hightower as satirical humorists, and the uniqueness that is Texas culture. You kind of have to love a state that had its own burger at McDonald’s, an extremely popular television series named after one of its largest cities (Dallas), numerous songs written about it (Christmas in Texas is a fun one), and the only state in which its residents celebrate Independence Day on March 2nd, the day Texas broke away from Mexico and became a republic. They also have a great anti-litter slogan in the very popular, “Don’t Mess with Texas” (they mean it!).
Texans themselves are kind of quirky. They are rumored to be big-hearted and big-haired (the big hair part is definitely true) and most of them dearly love the state. I vividly recall one of my sorority sisters from Houston telling me quite matter-of-factly that she had never left the state, and never wanted to. I was stunned. A popular bumper sticker states, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could.” Then there was the charming custom of being polite enough while driving to pull over onto the shoulder in order to let a car wanting to go faster pass by. I was told that drivers not extending that courtesy were quickly told, “Go home, Yankee!” Being from the Midwest, I found that amusing.
The long and short of it is that many Texans are convinced that Texas is as close to heaven on earth as you can get. The fabulous television series Friday Night Lights (one of the best things to come out of Texas in the last several years) really illustrated this sentiment. Friday Night Lights is the story of the Taylor family, who live in Dillon, a small town in Texas. In a nutshell, the show was about family, football, and Texas. In the series, one of the most beloved characters, Tim Riggins uses the phrase, “Texas Forever” as his personal slogan. People who weren’t from Texas didn’t get it. They thought he was being sarcastic or even silly but I assure you he wasn’t. It was so meaningful to Riggins and the series itself, that some of the last words in the series finale were “Texas Forever.” If nothing else, that phrase sums up the feelings of many Texans.
However, within the last 20 years, Texas has changed, and actually lent some truth to the slogan, “Texas: It’s Like a Whole Other Country”! That whole other country is not a good place, because somewhere along the way Texas lost that big heart it was always rumored to have. Now the state is somewhat of a national joke (the calls for secession aren’t just coming from Texans), and appears very mean-spirited. Arizona recently started giving us a run for our money with their lunacy and cruelty but, in general, it’s very hard to defend Texas because its detractors aren’t wrong. It’s like Texas is the Tin Man before the Wizard of Oz gives him a heart.
It’s ironic that the “compassionate conservative” phrase George W. Bush used during his first campaign for President of the United States originated in Texas, because compassion isn’t much in evidence here. I knew that the state of things was pretty bad, but even I was surprised at the lack of caring some of our laws and policies engender. Just take a look at some of our statistics.
Texas has a larger percentage of our population living in poverty than the overall United States average. We rate 8th in people living below the poverty level (i.e., a family of four earning less than $23,050 per year). The state doesn’t seem to care much about that though, because we also have the highest number of people not covered by health insurance (about 26%), so as the number of people needing public assistance went up, the amount of money spent assisting them went down. Texas ranks extremely low in spending on social services and, as evidence of that, we rank number one in child abuse fatalities. If you live in Texas, better pray you’re not poor.
While we don’t seem to care much about spending money on people in general, we appear to love spending money keeping them locked up. Texas has the largest prison population in the country — even more than California, which has 13 million more citizens than we do. We are 43rd in the nation on expenditure for overall healthcare (that’s spending for the general population) yet we’re 2nd in healthcare expenditure for the correctional population. We also lead the nation in executions. So far, Texas has executed 481 people. Virginia has the next highest record with 109 inmates killed by the state. Those numbers reflect some huge disparities. Apparently someone needs to explain to Texans that big doesn’t necessarily mean better.
So there doesn’t seem to be a lot of compassion being shown, and we don’t appear to be conserving much of anything either. We are 5th among the states in energy consumption per capita (in other words, we use a lot of energy) but we don’t spend a lot to conserve the environment. We have among the worst air quality in the country, as Texas is first in emissions of toxic air pollutants, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and carbon dioxide (which contributes to the greenhouse effect). Our water is at risk as well, as we rank 46th in water resources protection for both general and drinking water. Texas frequently challenges the Environmental Protection Agency because Texas politicians seem to think that business interests are more important than the planet on which we live. Thus, at the rate we’re destroying our environment, “Texas Forever” may not be for very long.
Education doesn’t seem to be much of a priority either. Although we’re 6th in the nation in student growth, we are 37th in educational funding, and that rank was prior to the massive cuts in education the Texas State Legislature implemented last year. The lack of funding plus the low salaries for teachers (we rank 33rd) might help explain why we’re 36th in high school graduation rates. In higher education, things aren’t much better. Tuition costs have risen substantially, while funding was cut. This might provide some explanation for why Texas schools lag behind. For example, even though Texas is the second most populous state in the nation, we have only three nationally-recognized research institutions, while California has nine, New York has seven, and Pennsylvania has four. Similarly, out of Texas’ 145 public and private higher education institutions, only one private institution, Rice University, ranked among the nation’s top 50.
The list of things wrong with Texas laws and policies is long. Texas recently implemented a transvaginal ultrasound law, requiring women seeking a legal abortion to submit to an invasive and unnecessary procedure before receiving one. Similarly, just last month Texas politicians shut down the state’s Women’s Health Program (which provided healthcare to over 130,000 low-income women). The reason? They refused to comply with federal guidelines that insist that qualified providers (like Planned Parenthood, which performed 44% of the preventative healthcare services) not be excluded. So, if you live in Texas, better add “not being a woman” to that prayer of not being poor.
Texas labels itself as “pro-business” and that is certainly true. Governor Rick Perry smugly points out that Texas hasn’t been as hard hit by the recession as other states, and he is not wrong. However, what he fails to explain is that “pro-business” usually means anti-worker. Texas is an “employment at will” state (the very thing workers in Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin are fighting against), which essentially means that you can be fired for any reason. The courts have enacted a significant number of tort reform laws, with the result that it is difficult to sue employers and, even if you win, damages are capped. Plus, many of the jobs politicians love to point toward are part-time ones that supply no benefits. So sure, things are good for businesses, but just not so great for the majority of those who work at them.
As I mentioned earlier, my relationship with Texas isn’t an easy one. I still love much about the state and its people, yet I’m increasingly angry at the short-sightedness, lack of compassion, greed, and downright cruelty of the people in power and those who put them there. If Texas were a person, wouldn’t we label it a sociopath?
And yet, I still have optimism. There are good people who live here. Many Texans are working hard to reverse so much of the ill that has been wrought over the last 20 years. I am encouraged that, after his failed bid for the presidency, Rick Perry is not held in nearly as much regard as he used to be. And I believe in the quirky nature of Texans. In my mind’s eye, whenever I envision Texans dancing to celebrate independence, Texans attending rallies held in Austin, and Texans enjoying their weekends by doing the Texas Two-Step and singing along to Deep in the Heart of Texas, I feel hope. Surely one day soon, these proud, independent, eccentric people obsessed with size will realize that being big-hearted is the best attribute we can have. Then the Lone Star will shine brightly and “Texas Forever” will mean something again.
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