Was I too hard on Travis County?

The other day I wrote an article for the Monitor titled, “Report shows the good, the bad and the ugly of Travis County economy.”

There’s good news:

Between 2012 and 2016, crime dropped by 27 percent. Those living under the federal poverty level decreased from 18 percent to 12 percent. The unemployment rate stands at 3 percent. And, thanks in no small part to the Affordable Care Act, the uninsured rate declined from 21 percent to 14 percent.

But of course, not everything is hunky-dory:

Thirty-four percent of households in the county are “housing cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

Latinos are by far the most likely to lack health insurance: 25 percent are uninsured. That is a significant improvement since 2012, when 32 percent were without coverage. But it’s more than twice the uninsured rate for African-Americans and four times greater than the white uninsured rate.

African-Americans were 2.5 times more likely to be jailed than Latinos and 2.7 times more likely than whites.

And then there’s data that’s hard to interpret:

The percentage of cost-burdened households also dropped slightly during the five-year period examined, but that is likely due in part to a large number of low-income people moving outside of the county in search of cheaper housing. Between 2010 and 2016, the low-income population dropped by 16 percent in Travis County and 12 percent in Williamson County, but it increased by 21 percent in Hays County.

Anyway, Brennan Griffin had a bone to pick with my headline (and yes, I did write it).

Hey – shouldn’t the story be “The excellent, the good, and maybe a little potential bad news”? Everything except the Hays County poverty stat is trending quite positively!

My response: “Maybe. But some of the positive trends just mean things are less bad than before, not necessarily good.”

He replied:

Depends on your point of comparison, I suppose. I tend to compare to US medians, and we’re doing well and getting better in most ways. If your point of comparison is a fictional utopia, or Sweden, maybe less so.”

Indeed, the Austin area is doing as well or better than the rest of the U.S. according to most economic measures. In fact, if there’s one point that was missing from the discussion of the report (including in my own article), it’s that most of the positive trends here are mostly a reflection of a strong national economy that has recovered from the Great Recession. And if I wrote an article about the many ways in which the national economy has improved over the past five years, I would definitely note that there is plenty of “bad” and “ugly” that persists, in spite of the improvements.

Unemployment is low and wages are finally starting to grow. But millions still work for poverty wages. Millions of others make decent wages but are burdened for decades by  student loan debt.  More people have insurance (although that trend will begin to move in the opposite direction thanks to Trump) but the cost of that coverage continues to rise and increasingly those plans do not protect them from getting hit with major medical bills that undermine their financial security. The U.S. life expectancy has actually dropped two years in a row, in no small part due to the opioid crisis and the ever-rising obesity rate, which is partly driven by the lack of access to decent food in many parts of the country.

Anyway…yes, Travis County is doing better than the U.S. overall. But the county and the country still have a lot of work to do.

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