We’re a Texas family. For 17 years we lived in the Chicago area, but our roots in the Lone Star State run generations deep. We introduced our Chicago neighbors to smoked brisket. We hosted parties for Texas Independence Day. We got booed cheering for the Astros at Wrigley Field.
Almost every summer we returned with the kids. With my parents in Beaumont, there were swamp tours and Cajun food. Trips to the gator farm and playing in Papa’s junk yard. We’d visit my Aunt & Uncle in La Grange for fishing and horseback riding at their ranch. We’d sit on the porch in the evening playing dominos, drinking sweet tea or Shiner Bock. The kids caught grasshoppers to bait their fishing hooks, reeling in bass from the retaining pond. They learned to harvest the sweetness from a honeysuckle flower. We visited longtime friends, neighbors and cousins in Dallas & Houston. Swam in the crystal waters of Barton Springs in Austin. Paid our respects at The Alamo.
We always planned to return when the time was right. As the kids were finishing high school a few years ago, they both said they wanted to “go home” to Texas for college. It seemed like the right time to return to the mothership to bask in Hill Country views, friends, family, and great food.
After 2 years, we’re leaving again.
Ever visited a Third World vacation destination and felt tempted, maybe just for a moment, to buy a home there? After all, who wouldn’t wouldn’t want to spend their days staring at the ocean and swimming on a coral reef? And it’s so cheap! Instead, you pack up your swimsuit and board a plane for home because you don’t want to give up the fundamentals of modern life; clean water, decent hospitals, quality education, and competent government.
Moving to Texas today is like moving your family into that cheap vacation condo in warm, inviting Baptistan. Life in Texas is all sunshine and tacos until you need something.
Our decision to leave Texas wasn’t all about politics. We expected gonzo politics when we chose to return. A principal factor we hadn’t anticipated cemented our decision to leave – the grueling toll of living in a place where public life is being destroyed. Life here is harder than you expect, and harder than it was a few decades ago. Perhaps not so much “harder” as just meaner.
Regarding politics, we knew Texas well and were wary. Prior to the move we laid down a couple of markers, bright political lines which, if crossed, would trigger a departure.
The first red line was if the state legislature began entertaining a secession resolution. Don’t laugh, these days some random Republican introduces a secession bill in every legislative term. Here’s the current one. It’s even part of the GOP’s state platform. Up to now, state Republican leaders have been able to dodge this question. Secession bills are quietly smothered in committee because leaders of the donor class aren’t backing the idea, yet. Some smart, ambitious Republican will see an opportunity soon to accelerate their career by promoting secession and it will take off like a brushfire. That will be a good time to be anywhere but Texas.
Our second marker was if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v Wade. That happened last year.
What do overturning Roe and toying with secession have in common? Either would signal that we could no longer count on the United States to protect us. From there forward, we’d be at the mercy of a majority of Texas voters. That majority has solidly backed policies better suited to a mideast petrostate than a democracy.
With the Supreme Court rendered irrelevant, state officials are already letting their freak flag fly. Texas’ Attorney General, an indicted professional swindler, has instructed family services case workers to investigate parents of trans kids as abusers. They’re doing it and the courts aren’t stopping them.
Just last week, a group of pediatricians at one of Austin’s largest hospital networks suddenly resigned. The AG had launched a criminal investigation of them for providing gender affirming care to trans kids. Families who depended on them are left to scramble to find care in a place with few options.
Libraries in Republican dominated-areas face persecution by white mobs. At least one is on the edge of being shut down. Angry villagers are combing library shelves looking for “porn.” Their definition of pornography strangely extends to books on slavery and the KKK.
Texas now leads the nation in book bans. The state legislature is working to empower the book burning mobs, proposing legislation that would cripple libraries even in Texas’ formerly safe Democratic cities. Austin has its charms, but it can’t run from Texas.
So, who do Texans choose to govern them?
A couple of weeks ago Texas had a mass shooting in Allen, this time targeting Asian-Americans. Here’s what the town’s congressman had to say about it.
Again, Keith Self is not your drunk uncle or some hobo screaming at clouds on a park bench. He’s a US Congressman. That has consequences.
Texas’ legislature is led by a former right-wing radio host, Dan Patrick. The cast of this clown show includes Tony Tinderholt, a family values advocate on his fifth marriage who tried to pass a bill that would punish women obtaining an abortion with the death penalty.
Rep. Slaton, who filed this year’s secession bill and led a legislative campaign against “perverts,” had sex with a 19 year-old who was too drunk to resist. The list could go on for a hundred pages. For years conservative Texas voters have been tripping over themselves to find leaders crazy enough to express their political wishes. Across that time we could still lean on the Supreme Court to curb their ugliest and deadliest ambitions. That protection is gone. Time to leave.
You may be thinking, “politics doesn’t affect me,” especially if you’re white and even more especially if you’re a white man. Being non-white here isn’t great, though to be fair, discrimination and hostility non-whites face in Texas may not be markedly worse than what you’d experience in Boston or Chicago. For women, though, life here is becoming very difficult. If you’re living the “T” in LGBTQ, it may be wise to avoid Texas entirely. Harassment of trans people is reaching a dangerous crescendo.
Why are so many otherwise decent Texas tolerating the destruction of every aspect of public life?
Like other former slave states, Texas has long cultivated an ethic of ignoring politics. Texans rank 50th in the nation for their likelihood to discuss politics with friends, and near the bottom in every other dimension of public engagement. Raise a political question in polite company in Texas and you’re likely to be greeted with our trademark shutdown, “Bless your heart.” It’s Southern Lady for ‘fuck you.’ An interest in public life is broadly seen as poor manners, a holdover from the days when saying the wrong thing in public could get you killed. Those days aren’t over.
An avid racist, Daniel Perry, showed up to Black Lives Matter protests in Austin in 2020 and murdered a protester. You’ve probably heard of Kyle Rittenhouse, but chances are you’ve never heard of Perry. That’s another thing you’ll have to get used to if you move to Texas. Almost nothing that happens here makes national news, contributing to the ignorance and subsequent surprise of people who make the move. Perry was promptly convicted of murder by a jury. The next day the Governor promised to pardon him.
Politics aside, what’s it like to live in a place where every form of public infrastructure is crumbling (except to the freeways, Texas Republicans love their freeways). You’ll experience a matrix of hundreds of little failures, none of which seem to have a political angle on their own, and probably wouldn’t be noticed by anyone who hasn’t lived in a better-functioning place. All of it adds up to an experience which might have been described in the words of my Texas grandmother as being “pecked to death by chickens.” Things don’t work here and it’s hard to understand why.
Austin has been through three boil water notices in the past four years. It’s part of a trend in the state. Nobody in charge seems to notice or care.
Maybe you’ve heard of states that have let pharmacists decline to prescribe contraceptives or abortion drugs. Texas heard about that and said, “hold my swastika.” In Texas, your pharmacist can decline to fill any prescription for any reason, or for no reason at all. Maybe it won’t affect you, but if it does there’s little you can do about it. If you need drugs for reproductive care, gender affirming care, chronic pain, or anything else your pharmacist decides they have a problem with, you’ll have issues.
You’ll enjoy no state-level protections against LGBTQ discrimination in housing, employment or anywhere else. Adoption agencies can refuse to serve you. Same goes for restaurants or any other business outside the few big cities that have their own protections.
Whatever you do, don’t get sick in Texas. Unless you have access to the Texas Medical Center in Houston, which benefits from the cash inflow of a global clientele, you’ll face a dangerously underfunded system, poorly prepared to help you.
Like every other public institution in Texas, medical professionals have poor options for getting paid. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured in the country, again by a wide margin. And thanks to the legislature’s love affair with grifters, having insurance doesn’t mean your treatments will be covered.
That means it’s hard for a health care professional to get paid in Texas, which translates directly into a ranking near the bottom (again) for access to doctors. But that’s just part of the story. When you strip healthcare from a large portion of the population it affects everyone.
A system deprived of resources forces the doctors that remain to be very careful about accepting patients, very aggressive about billing, and remarkably creative in how they make money. If you’re “lucky” enough to get a doctor in Texas, it’s a near certainty that they’ll propose some unconventional treatment for what ails ya. Specially branded “vitamins” are popular, along with quacky weight loss potions and unproven hormone treatments. It’s a system built for grift. Don’t hate the playa, hate the game.
The removal of Supreme Court protections has had a horrific impact on women’s health. Texas already ranked last in the country in access to obstetric care – and that was before the state passed laws criminalizing many routine elements of pregnancy care. Many OB/GYNs and other doctors must now consider leaving or be forced to violate their oath. Those that remain must cope with a dangerous legal environment that will only get worse. Who’s likely to stay – doctors you probably wouldn’t want to see anyway. Texas women will carry more dangerous pregnancies, longer, with less access to care and a dwindling number of specialists. More women will die and a solid majority of Texas voters don’t care.
One example of the doctors still practicing here: a male gynecologist in Austin keeps a “funny” book in his examination room called Brenda’s Beaver Needs a Haircut. It’s a cute cartoon, written by a man, about a woman who needs to shave her pubic hair because it’s disgusting and it frightens people. It’s humor for douche-bros, fine in the right setting. Your OB’s office isn’t the right setting. Imagine sitting nervously in a paper gown, vulnerable and exposed, preparing to visit your doctor to address a life-threatening issue while reading a cartoon suggesting he finds you repugnant.
Is the book amusing? Is it appropriate in that setting? In a place a woman might go to seek critical, lifesaving help on sensitive subjects from someone she trusts – it’s not helpful. Apart from being unprofessional and sexist, it’s also hostile. It sends a message, from your doctor, about the real value of a woman, part of the glib attitude toward a woman’s wellbeing that you’re likely to experience everywhere in Texas.
An underfunded system creates a lousier experience for everyone, including the providers. With determination and lots of money, you can find quality medical professionals in Texas, but their ability to influence outcomes will be limited by the decaying system around them. And increasingly, they are making plans to leave.
Are you interested in good public schools? Again, thanks to an underfunded system and hordes of religious cultists waging their bizarre culture wars, you’re screwed.
You may think your local schools wherever you live in the country are “under-funded.” Most people would say that. However, is your state government actually trying to eliminate them?
Since Republicans took over the legislature twenty years ago the government has been working tirelessly to eliminate the threat of an educated electorate. You’re likely to discover that your local school is an under-funded nightmare, and have your neighbors recommend a shiny new charter school just down the street. Those officially non-profit schools fall into two categories: thinly veiled evangelical religious madrassas or scams. Many are both.
If your children attend public school they will, sooner or later, have a teacher who tells them evolution is fake, gays are going to hell, or they’ll go to hell if they don’t accept Christ. It’s so routine and tolerated it wouldn’t even make the news. You can’t escape the religious nuttery in big cities. It’s one of those things Texans don’t even notice, like the heat.
As public schools face increasing hostility from the state, new “charter schools” are emerging as an alternative. These are not the charter schools you’re used to.
Building a charter school in Texas is a great way for the rich to get richer. You form a non-profit entity which will receive state money for the school. You also form a series of for-profit entities, from which the non-profit charter school will lease land and equipment, buy services like lunches and building maintenance, everything your non-profit public charter school needs to operate. Now you have a fountain of state money laundered into your bank account. Money that would have been going to your neighborhood school is diverted into a sham charter while ultimately filling private pockets. It’s legal in Texas – unethical everywhere and contributes to the degradation of the public system.
These low-rent charters siphon students and their tax money away from the local public schools, further weakening an institution Republicans hate. They escape most of the oversight and service obligation of the public schools, allowing them to operate more cheaply than the publics. Remember this model. It’s how almost everything works here, from hospitals to prisons.
It gets even better. Next year, your child’s school counselor could be replaced with a local preacher. Legislators are also proposing to require giant 10-Commandments posters in every school room and force schools to set aside time for prayer and Bible study. You can’t escape the influence of religious nuts even in the public system.
Does your child need help from a therapist? Sorry, you’re in the wrong place. Texas ranks last in access to mental health care by miles. If you do find a therapist, watch out. You may discover that they’re pushing bizarre religious treatments or recommending miracle cures from magic beans. Be particularly cautious with doctors who have their headshot on the speciality medications they’re pitching. Check their background carefully, as Texas has become a haven for therapists run out of other jurisdictions for negligence or worse. There are a few good reputable mental health professionals in Texas. You won’t see them. They’re booked solid, they don’t take insurance, you probably can’t afford them, and increasingly are planning to leave.
All of this dysfunction shows up in crime rates. For all Texas’ bluster about personal protection and law enforcement, the state consistently ranks at the bottom for public safety. A Texan is roughly twice as likely to die from homicide as a New Yorker and about a third more likely than a Californian. To find higher homicide rates than Texas you need to travel even deeper into deep red Dixie to places like Mississippi and Louisiana. When a raving lunatic shoots up a Texas school or shopping center, state leaders’ reactions give you the distinct impression they care more about the shooter than the dead. Texas’ brand of freedom isn’t free. It costs lots of dead children.
What about all the money you’ll save in taxes? The “move to Texas because it’s cheap” story was always a card trick. Because Texas has no income tax it can appear that the tax burden is small. That only holds if you’re earning in the highest percentiles. Middle earners pay significantly more in state and local taxes in Texas than in other reputedly “high-tax” states like California. To make things worse, you get virtually nothing for it beyond giant highways and magnificent high school football stadiums. Perhaps you’re wealthy and figure public life doesn’t matter, but no one has enough money to build their own airports, rail systems, healthcare or public education. Everybody pays for the poor quality of public infrastructure.
But there are so many jobs! Thanks to the oil industry Texas maintains a healthy supply of middle income jobs, especially jobs that don’t require a college education, though it trails California in that category (as in so many others). Despite its sunny reputation, Texas’ ranks 40th among the 50 states in unemployment, lagging far behind places like New Jersey, Minnesota and Massachusetts. What will the economic picture look like as decarbonization gains momentum?
You may have seen a lot of showy announcements about big companies “relocating” to Texas. Read a little farther in those stories. Rarely are companies expecting any employees to move, especially highly skilled tech workers. They typically remain in the kinds of places those workers want to be while the Texas jobs are largely lower-tech sales, marking and customer support. What companies get with a “move” to Texas is a more favorable address for tax purposes along with fewer irritating rules against employee abuse and discrimination. In other words, it’s a lot like moving to the Caymans.
That brings us back to a theme.
Buying that cheap, beautiful home in a tropical paradise is a dream come true, until you wake up one day and need something. Money you saved on a cheap house won’t be enough to buy a hospital or a school. It doesn’t take long in Texas for the price of cheap to come due.
Millions of Texans, including friends I love, are fighting to make this a saner, more decent place. Not everyone can leave. Those fighting against the tide of crazy in Texas will always have my family’s love and support. It’s time for my family to build a new home in a place with more respect for life and decency.