Back in 2005, a lifetime ago, Alona Smith was working random jobs as a security guard and taking classes at Austin Community College when she became pregnant. As the dutiful daughter of a single mom, a latchkey kid who had basically raised her own baby sister, she knew too well what lay ahead.
Her boyfriend was a college student in Houston. She had no health insurance, no safety net and, now, no chance of getting that nursing degree.
Too embarrassed to explain her situation to her counselor at Capital IDEA, the nonprofit program that was sponsoring her education, she quit school -- the offramp that many struggling students don't find their way back from. "I dropped off the radar," Smith said.
But eventually Capital IDEA picked her up again, paying her tuition, helping her juggle course work with a new baby and night jobs as a nurse's aide.
Now 27, Smith is a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at St. David's North Austin Medical Center -- the "best job I ever had." She and Marlon, now her husband, and their two children live in a new house they bought in Pflugerville. He works at Dell, and together they earn a six-figure income, placing their family comfortably in the middle class.
Smith's story of personal triumph also illustrates a daunting reality. Gov. Rick Perry and other politicians boast about the vigor of the "Texas jobs machine," but many of the jobs it has churned out are low-wage and dead-end. And while Texas typically enjoys an unemployment rate below the national average -- currently 6.9 percent, compared with the U.S. rate of 8.2 percent -- it has reduced its investment in efforts aimed at lifting poor, working adults into sustainable careers with living wages and benefits. The kind of program that gave Smith another chance.
"More employment opportunities don't mean a better shot at the middle class," said Don Baylor with the Center for Public Policy Priorities, a liberal-leaning Austin think tank that is an advocate for low- and moderate-income Texans. "It's not necessarily going to lead to upward mobility."
To the Texas Workforce Commission, work itself "is the way people can keep their skills fresh and improve their situation," said Lisa Givins, spokeswoman for the agency. "Not everybody needs to be trained."
Bob Duvic, distinguished lecturer in finance at the University of Texas McCombs School of Business, agrees that even a low-end job can lead to something better. But, he added, "We face a long-term problem that really has to do with education. You can train someone to drive a truck, but what if that truck goes away? Even my plumber has to know electronics now."
The state's record on education speaks for itself. Texas ranks 50th in the U.S. in the percentage of adults 25 or older who have a high school degree. For those 3 million Texans who don't, adult basic education -- general education degree (GED) studies, English as a second language and literacy classes are the first step up the ladder. Yet Texas is one of only two states that spend no money on adult education beyond the minimum required to get federal funding for those programs, according to U.S. Department of Education data.
For the working poor, community college remains the most accessible route to education that pays off: A two-year degree or certificate can equal a 30 percent increase in earning power. But developmental or remedial education -- required by almost half of incoming community college students and a major barrier to their success -- has proven "alarmingly ineffective" for years, according to the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board. When the agency asked the Legislature for $30 million in incentives for schools that improve the academic performance of remedial students, it got $9 million. The innovation projects it paid for have yet to bear fruit.
Most Popular Stories
- Accenture Gets 8 Percent Bump in Q1
- Texting With Vodka: Booze and Social Media Can Mix After All
- Lockheed Martin Ends Gifts to Boy Scouts Over Gay Ban
- Stripped-Down Defense Bill Creates Winners, Losers
- Debt Ceiling Looms Again as Deadline Approaches
- Menendez Pushes for Iran Sanctions
- Deportation Threat Looms Larger Than Citizenship Among Hispanics
- How to Protect Yourself After Target Data Breach
- Mazda Leads the Pack for Fuel Efficiency
- Senate Nears Approval of Defense Bill