When you think of Texas you most likely think of big old trucks, people throwing money around and prosperity. You can’t be blamed for thinking that way because that is exactly the way they want you to think of them—they couldn’t stand it if you thought otherwise. But reality is that there are many people who call Texas “home” that do not fit the image of what you might have burned into your mind. Reality is that there are many Texans who live as if they were lost in time and for the most part they were.
Jean and Michael Brown have not had electricity in their East Texas shack for nearly as long as they can remember. The power to their home was shut off for non-payment over three years ago and even if they had electricity it would likely not be safe for them to turn on a light bulb for fear of starting a fire. Their water comes from a spigot tapped into a well hundreds of yards away from their home that a neighbor allows them to run multiple green garden hoses from for no charge. This is their life here in East Texas.
“We raise watermelons and then sell them out by the road,” Michael explains while he is sucking on a piece of hard candy that he picked up at the local discount department store. “I pick up a few jobs here, there and yonder to make ends meet when we ain’t growing watermelons.”
Michael considers himself a farmer and for all intents and purposes he is. What Michael and Jean also are is poor. They live off of less than $2,000 per year on land that is owned by their neighbor, Phillip Hedge. Hedge has been “leasing” the land to them for nearly as long as he can remember.
“I feel bad for them,” Hedge says. “The only thing I ask is that they don’t tear the place up and that they give me a few watermelons in return.”
When asked where they came from Hedge says that he doesn’t remember exactly, but they have become friends to him and he knows that if he were to evict them there would be no place for them to go.
Michael and his wife Jean are part of the Texas landscape that largely goes ignored by politicians and civic leaders alike. These people are known as “The Rural Poor.” State statisticians for the large part do not have a clue as to exactly how many people like Michael and Jean there are in the state. But estimates suggest as many as 50,000 or more could dot the landscape across the state. The problem is not isolated to only East Texas.
Just off Interstate 37 South of San Antonio in rural Bexar and Atascosa counties is another community of hardcore rural poor. People like LeRoy Gouleman and Junior Dove. They are good people who just somehow fall through the cracks of modern society. Gouleman has been in and out of prison for petty theft and so has his friend and neighbor Junior Dove. They live in mobile homes and off beaten paths and very few people even know their names.
“We do pretty good,” says Gouleman while he points to his mobile home. “I mean it ain’t much but it is paid for.” Leroy now lives off of less than $800 a month which he gets from social security. That is hardly enough to survive. When asked how he manages to scrape up the money for things like property takes and so on he refuses to elaborate on the details other than to just say that he manages.
He considers himself to be “well off” because he at least has electricity that is shared between he and his neighbor Junior Dove. Together they pay around $30 per month because about the only thing it runs is the water well that they share.
“We don’t really turn on the lights and stuff because we just can’t damn afford it,” Dove says with a toothless grin. “We keep our costs low.”
Junior Dove is raising his three teenage grandchildren whose parents are both in Texas prisons on repeat theft charges.
“Their momma has about 3 more years to go and my son I think has about 4,” Dove says shaking his head. “They is repeat offenders and they threw the damn book at them this time.”
Gouleman says he understands where Dove is coming from because local prosecutors make sure that offenders get harsh sentences and return them to society without any skills or other work ability.
“I mean my son has been to prison three times for drugs and each time they say they are going to help him get a GED,” says Gouleman. “They never do.”
Both Dove and Gouleman admit to dropping out of public school somewhere around the 5th grade. Their kids followed in their footsteps leaving school well before high school. Local education officials aren’t sure how people like this fall through the cracks of the system, but admit that there is more that they could do.
“These people do not have an education and neither do their children,” says former South Texas school administrator Joe Robertson. “What we are dealing with here are some very poor people without a lot of resources or direction.”
Robertson says that part of the problem is societal and the other part is personal. From his point of view educators could do more if they had more funding available from state lawmakers. But he also understands that there is a personal level of accountability that goes along with it.
“Our education system here in Texas is broken beyond any question,” Robertson says. “I worked for 30 years in economically challenged areas of this state and I saw it on a yearly basis and the older the kids got, the more you wondered if they were going to return the next year or not. What we have here is a vicious revolving door.”
One of the thriving trade practices here in South Texas is stealing copper tubing or equipment from oil and gas production sites. Many of the deeply poor here make a substantial living stealing and selling metals and equipment on the black market. When things get tight they resort to stealing from companies because they believe these companies can afford it and it is harmless. But those that are dealing with their version of survival don’t feel the same about it.
Oil field services companies resort to hiring off duty police at some locations to protect their investment from theft. But even that is often not enough. Hundreds of thousands of dollars each year go into the game of loss prevention but what is one man’s loss could be seen as another man’s survival—wrong as it might be. But for Junior Dove, he says he doesn’t blame the people who are stealing from the companies.
“I mean you tell us to go get a job but who in the Hell is going to hire me or LeRoy?,” Dove asks in frustration. “I can’t spell or do simple math and neither can my kids or grandkids. If I send them to school they will call CPS on me and what good is that doing anybody?”
The frustration for these lost people is real. They understand the risks of sending their kids to school without proper clothing or nutrition and they also understand that if Child Protective Services was to somehow enter into their lives they would suggest programs and solutions that they would not understand anyway or even begin to understand how to navigate. State workers are under high pressure to close cases as quickly as they can and have little to no time to devote to truly being part of the solution. The cycle continues on.
Lawmakers can’t figure out how to get a handle on the solution either. They say that they are doing what they can, but truth is that the poor don’t have a powerful lobby or come in a large voting bloc. Reality is that these thousands of Texans do not have a voice and likely never will.
Mental health treatment could be part of the solution, according to some advocates. But state resources are focused on the inner-city and funding for programs that help get people out of extreme poverty is even more severely limited. So Texas lawmakers do what Texas lawmakers do best when they don’t know how to fix the problem—they just throw up their hands and give up. Giving up is not what these poor rural Texans need—they need solutions and positive outcomes. Neither is ever likely to happen.
“We are white trash,” says Junior Dove. “White Trash is all me and my family will ever be to them I guess.”