Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Amid oil and gas boom in South Texas, rural residents remain some of nation's poorest

Rural Texas is experiencing one of the U.S.'s greatest oil and gas booms, with a third of the state's $48 billion in tax revenue last year coming directly or indirectly from the industry, Manny Fernandez and Clifford Krauss report for The New York Times. Despite the boom, many production areas have some of the highest poverty rates in the country and the state ranks first in percentage of residents without health insurance. (NYT photo by Nicole Bengiveno: Children in La Salle County, where 39 percent live in poverty)

While oil fields in La Salle County produce more than $15 million worth of oil a day, local residents are struggling to survive, Fernandez and Krauss write. La Salle County, where President Lyndon B. Johnson worked and was reportedly inspired to help the poor, eventually with his War on Poverty, is home to one of several "makeshift, barely governed communities called colonias. 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," or even police.

"Decades after Johnson took a teaching job here in 1928, the area, like the country, is a startling and incongruous mix of cascading wealth and crushing hardship," Fernandez and Krauss write. "And though the boom has helped produce fortunes for some and comfortable lives for many, for others it exists within a rural landscape of unpaved streets without garbage pickup, where few dare to drink the tap water because it tastes and smells like chlorine. It is a different kind of poverty than it was in 1928, this time surrounded by a buzz of industrial activity, not empty stretches of scrub grass. But it feels as entrenched as ever, reinforced by bad luck, bad choices, a lack of education and the isolation that allows the poor to remain invisible and adrift in lonely, distant orbits."

Studies have shown that 42 percent of residents in the colonias live below the federal poverty line, compared to the national rate of 14.3 percent, Fernandez and Krauss write. In La Salle, the median annual household income is $29,000 and 39 percent of children live in poverty. Making things worse, the boom has led rent to skyrocket and "newly hired teachers had such a hard time finding housing they could afford that the Cotulla school district opened its own trailer park for them."

Safety is also a concern, with increased traffic from the oil and gas business blamed for 11 motor vehicle fatalities this year in La Salle, up from two in 2007, Fernandez and Krauss write. Also "during the peak ozone season in 2012, Eagle Ford operations in La Salle County daily emitted 12.8 tons of nitrogen oxides and 28 tons of volatile organic compounds — pollutants that produce smog and can cause health problems — according to a report prepared by the Alamo Area Council of Governments." (Read more)

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