No Miracle Here

If there’s a “Texas miracle,” it’s hard to see it from where María Ayala is sitting.

The Mission woman, her oilfield worker husband and their five children have lived for years in an unfinished home where the second-story windows were never installed. The family only manages to make ends meet by spending half of each year away from Texas, in Indiana, where they pick corn.

Lone Star State leaders like Gov. Rick Perry often tout the so-called Texas miracle – the idea that the state’s economy is thriving thanks to its small-government approach.

But Texas also has the highest rate in the nation of people without health insurance. And it ranks last in the percentage of people 25 and older who have completed high school.

“That miracle has left a lot of people out of the picture,” said Celia Cole, CEO of the Texas Food Bank Network.

Among them is Mike Bryan of San Antonio, a small-business owner struggling so much to make ends meet at his auto-repair shop that in the fall, the father of three became one of nearly 4 million Texans on food stamps.

“We might be doing good in the economy,” Bryan said of Texas, “but we could do a lot better.” Here are the stories of Ayala, Bryan and four others from across Texas who have found little relief in the Texas miracle.

Jerome Johnson

Despite degree, a long search for a job

Jerome Johnson outside of his parents' home in Fort Worth on Aug. 12, 2014. Johnson received a sociology degree from UT-Arlington in 2013. It took him nearly a year to find a full-time job and he currently lives with his parents. Johnson is now the site supervisor for an after-school program at a middle school. Photo by Brandon Thibodeaux.

FORT WORTH — Jerome Johnson, 46, finished his sociology degree at the University of Texas at Arlington last summer, almost three decades after he took his first course there.

He hoped that with a bachelor’s degree and years of work experience, he’d be able to find a well-paying, fulfilling job. In the first several months after graduation, he applied for at least 50 jobs, he said, but was called for an interview just four times.

“I threw the bait out there but no one was biting,” Johnson said.

Johnson’s first stint at UT-Arlington ended when he became a single father and dropped out to work full time. Over the years, he worked at call centers and as a claims auditor for an insurance company. But he struggled to make ends meet so he returned to school to finish his degree, moving back into his elderly parents’ home to cut living expenses.

After he graduated, he said, potential employers repeatedly told him that they had decided to hire another candidate. He found it difficult to stand out in a competitive job market, and the experience made him doubt himself.

“People think ‘Oh, I can go to Texas and get a job,’” Johnson said. “Yes, there are abundant jobs in Texas, but are they jobs that will move you from working class to middle class? There aren’t that many.”

Johnson eventually landed a part-time position at the local YMCA as a community advocate in a diabetes prevention program. While he was happy there, he said it was difficult to live on a part-time salary.

“If it weren’t for living with my parents and them not charging rent or anything, then I definitely wouldn’t make it,” Johnson said.

More than a year after graduating, Johnson finally landed a full-time position. He started training for his new role as an after-school program coordinator at a local middle school earlier this month.

Claudia Salazar

Choosing between electricity and rent

Claudia Salazar with her three children on Aug. 23, 2014, in Austin. Despite having more resources than she did back home in Mexico, Salazar struggles to provide for her family in Texas on her husband's construction salary. Photo by Callie Richmond

For Claudia Salazar and her husband Carlos Contreras, the winter months in Austin often come with a serious tradeoff: Do they pay the rent or pay to keep the heat on?

When the season changes, cold weather shortens Contreras' hours working for a local construction contractor — and money gets tight. But with an 18-month-old baby and two other children, the couple can’t bear to turn off the heat.

“The electricity bill gets expensive, but our landlord helps us out when we can’t pay rent on the first of the month,” Salazar said.

Salazar and her husband moved to the United States in 2003 from Sabinas Hidalgo, Nuevo León, in northern Mexico. They first landed in Indiana, where Salazar’s brother helped her husband find a job. They later moved to Fort Worth, where Contreras found odd jobs through a temporary employment agency.

After two years without steady pay, they moved to Austin, where they had heard the construction business was booming. Contreras quickly found a job, but the family also found an expensive housing market.

They shared a one-bedroom apartment with an aunt for which they paid $525 a month. It was a departure from the small house they rented in Indiana for $400 a month. Now, they live in a modest, two-bedroom rental home in north Austin.

“We like it here,” Salazar said. “Even though we don’t have a lot, my husband has always found work.”

But after a recent burglary of their neighbors’ home, she said, they have begun talking about one day buying their own house in a safer area. Contreras is wary about taking on debt when they can’t even pay their rent on time.

Salazar said she has tried taking part-time jobs to help bring in more money, mostly cleaning houses. But they are unable to afford childcare, making even part-time work difficult.

With the older two children already in school, Salazar said she tries to encourage them to succeed academically so they won’t have to take manual labor jobs like their father. That way, she said, they may be able to “enjoy just a tiny bit of the Texas miracle.”

Mike Bryan

Small-business owner turns to food stamps

Mike Bryan at his auto-repair shop in San Antonio. A single dad, Bryan works long hours, rarely takes a day off and was forced to go on food stamps last fall when business got unusually slow. Photo by Spencer Selvidge.

SAN ANTONIO — Mike Bryan has come a long way since arriving in San Antonio in 1985 with only a rucksack.

The New York-born U.S. Army veteran, who grew up in poverty in Puerto Rico and dropped out of high school, now owns an auto-repair shop on San Antonio’s West Side.

But for anyone who thinks that being a small-business owner is glamorous, Bryan, 53, has a cautionary tale. He works long hours, rarely takes a day off and was forced to go on food stamps last fall when business got unusually slow.

“Every day is a test of some kind,” said the single father of three.

Bryan lives above his shop with Michael, 11; Cassandra, 15; and Mercedes, 17. He overhauls transmissions until 8 p.m. each night, stopping to have dinner with his kids. Then he toils into the night tweaking his shop’s Facebook page and advertising on Craigslist for the fish tanks he repairs on the side.

“The Lord got me working here, and guess what? I’m going to work every single day until the job is done,” he said. “I’ve got to ponerle – to hustle – to get it done.”

The fact that he’s always working made it especially frustrating when business plummeted last year. It got so bad, Bryan said, that he kept picking up his phone to make sure there was a dial tone.

Finally, he signed up for food stamps with the help of the local food bank, which assisted with the application since he never learned to read or write in English.

But other bills piled up, and he’s thankful his landlord cuts him slack when he can’t pay rent on time. In better times, Bryan owned the building.

Bryan’s problems deepened in November, when Mercedes, who had a history of running away, left school one day and didn’t come back. As of the end of July, she was still missing.

At the shop one day last spring, where one of Bryan’s employees was repairing a BMW with an oil leak, Bryan’s kids’ trophies for perfect school attendance were on display.

Bryan said he’s constantly encouraging his children to read so they don’t struggle like he has.

Cassandra has her heart set on attending Juilliard, and he’s determined to send her there.

Meanwhile, the family is still waiting to hear from Mercedes.

“We’ve got to keep the faith,” Bryan said. “What a lot of people don’t understand is everything happens for a good reason.”

Juan Carlos Pacheco

In booming West Texas, a struggle to pay rent

Juan Carlos Pacheco, center, lives with the Munoz family in Odessa during the work week, and drives four hours to El Paso to spend the weekend with his wife and two children. Housing prices in the oil-rich region where he is employed as a Child Protective Services investigator have made living on his own unaffordable. Photo by Brad Tollefson.

When Juan Carlos Pacheco moved to Odessa last year for a job as a Child Protective Services investigator, the only place he could afford to live was a one-bedroom apartment with six other people. He later shared a trailer with five other people before moving to his current home: a bedroom he rents in the house of a family of four.

Housing prices were the first thing Pacheco, 29, noticed when he arrived in the Midland and Odessa area, where an oil and gas boom has led to an influx of residents that is driving up rent.

“It just places a strain on people who don’t make the money and still have to pay those prices,” said Pacheco, who earns about $49,000 a year doing a job he enjoys.

Pacheco’s own family — his wife, Jessica; daughter Xochitl, 1; and son Victor, 5 — lives in El Paso. But he thinks Odessa provides better opportunities.

“I got an opportunity here that I wouldn’t get in El Paso,” he said, because there is so much competition in El Paso for such jobs.

He said his wife is finishing her college degree and plans to move soon to Odessa, where she hopes to get a job with her husband’s employer, the Department of Family and Protective Services.

“We do plan on buying a house,” he said from Odessa. “I’ve been doing my best to at least stay here, even if I have to share a house. If I have to struggle, it’s going to be for an end.”

Read more here about Pacheco and the Department of Family and Protective Services’ difficulty retaining caseworkers in the Midland and Odessa area.

Tiffany Richardson

Small loans balloon into massive debt

Tiffany Richardson, a nurse who fell into debt with auto-title loans, in Stafford, Tex., on Jan. 25, 2014. Richardson eventually had her cars repossessed. Photo by Michael Stravato.

Houston-area nurse Tiffany Richardson regrets ever taking out an auto-title loan.

She never would have considered such a loan before her mother was diagnosed with cancer more than five years ago, she said. Richardson, 43, spent so much time caring for her mother that she eventually lost her job, her home and her savings.

“I had saved,” she said. “I had done everything that a responsible person was supposed to do.”

She borrowed from friends and family until she was afraid to tap them anymore.

Last year, she got desperate and used the title to a Nissan Altima — which had been a gift to her mother — as collateral for a $5,000 loan. She then got behind on the payments and took out a $2,400 loan using her Toyota 4Runner as collateral.

The amount she owed grew rapidly — she’s not sure how high, but far more than she borrowed.

During an interview earlier this year, Richardson said she was looking out the window every night to make sure the cars hadn’t been repossessed. In a follow-up conversation this month, she said that shortly after the first interview, that’s exactly what happened.

One night, she and her mother, who lived with her, woke up just as a tow truck drove away with the Altima. The 4Runner was already gone.

Since then, her mother has passed away, and Richardson has been busy resolving her mother’s affairs, settling into a new nursing job and preparing for her daughter, to start third grade.

“I’ve been through hell and back,” Richardson said. “Hopefully our silver lining is around the corner.”

Read more about Richardson and the state’s reluctance to further regulate payday lending and auto-title loan businesses.

María Ayala

To make ends meet, family must leave Texas

The unfinished home of the Ayala family, photographed on Aug. 21, 2014, in Mission, Tex. The Ayalas can't make ends meet in Texas so they travel to Indiana to pick corn. Photo by Gabe Hernandez.

MISSION — If it weren’t for the black truck and small trailer parked outside María Ayala’s unfinished home, it would be easy to assume that it had been abandoned — which it is for half the year.

Ayala, her husband, José, and the youngest three of their five children live in the family home in Mission during the fall and winter. But every April, the Ayalas trek to Indiana, where they pick corn and live in trailer homes.

Despite 12-hour workdays in the cornfields, Ayala said the family has made the trip for nearly two decades. Finding full-time jobs that pay a decent wage is too hard back home because of the Ayalas’ lack of education, she said.

“Whenever we’re in Indiana, we’re never short on money,” said Ayala, 43.

Ayala speaks fondly about the family’s time as migrant workers in Indiana — despite the fact that one year, her daughter Deborah, now 13, had to be rushed to the hospital when she fell ill after being sprayed with pesticide.

While sitting at her kitchen table in Mission one day last spring, Ayala said she is proud of the home she and her relatives have slowly built — now four years in the making — with the money they bring back at the end of every Indiana picking season. Last year, they finally added a roof. When they first moved in, the house was also missing doors.

The family previously lived in a much smaller home on the property that doubled as a bakery. That business was their main source of income in Texas until the building burned in a fire last year while they were in Indiana.

“We ended up with nothing,” Ayala said. “The little that we had was all stolen.”

Ayala’s husband now works in Oklahoma’s oil fields to bring in money while she and the children are in Texas, and Ayala makes and sells tamales, primarily during the winter holidays.

The Ayalas, who are in Indiana this summer, plan to return to Texas soon in time for the children’s new school year.

As they do every year, they’ll bring enough money back to Texas to pay the bills and add something new to their home. This year, they’re hoping to install windows on the second story of the house.

Disclosure: The University of Texas at Arlington is a corporate sponsor of The Texas Tribune. A complete list of Texas Tribune donors and sponsors can be viewed here.