Rene Jaime - Headshot

When talking about poverty in San Antonio, where do we begin?

We could start by examining the longitudinal high school dropout rate in correlation to the system of property tax funding SA school districts from Alamo Heights to South San ISD. We can look at the consequences of private spending for development outpacing public infrastructure spending since the early 20th Century (see The Politics of San Antonio: Community, Progress, & Power).

We can look at the failure of urban renewal, such as Hemisfair ’68, in generating and sustaining long-term economic development for downtown and the city’s Eastside. We can look at the disproportionate amount of the city budget delegated to the police force in contrast to the miniscule sliver of the pie allocated for public works. 

Here’s A Closer Look

In 1967 President Lyndon Baines Johnson commissioned an 11-member committee, the National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders a/k/a the Kerner Commission, to investigate the causes of turbulent social protests of the 1960s. Origins of social unrest, the committee concluded, were in part due to the “concentration on ‘national’ and international problems at the expense of ‘local’ and domestic concerns,” leaving the U.S. with an “enormous deficit of unmet social needs and deeply felt social injustices.” The findings of the report were ultimately disregarded, a great disappointment to the future of American communities, with Johnson instead shifting focus to the Vietnam War. Such neglect of determinant hardships is still felt in our nation’s communities today.

The pernicious stereotype of “welfare queens” abusing the system, propaganda perpetuated by the Reagan Administration in order to gain popular support to dismantle the welfare state, deviously misconstrues our view of working class communities, depicting those in poverty as “lazy” or reluctant to work hard in achieving the American Dream.

Researching economics and public policy in San Antonio. Photo by Rene Jaime Gonzalez.
Researching economics and public policy in San Antonio. Photo by Rene Jaime Gonzalez.

Anyone who has seen “The American Ruling Class” (2005) or read “Nickel and Dimed” by Barbara Ehrenreich can understand the difficulty in maintaining a family – let alone going back to night school at a local community college – on a minimum wage salary. Many of these jobs are service industry entry-level positions, which may or may not provide full-time hours, health benefits, and the right to organize/collectively bargain.

In addressing the minimum wage, economic studies have shown that if wages had kept pace with productivity over the past four decades, we would see the federal minimum wage hovering around $20-$22 an hour. Even by conservative estimates, the minimum wage would be double the current $7.25/hr.

In November of last year, SeaTac Airport workers put a vote to raise the minimum wage to $15/hour on the ballot. The “YES” vote survived a recount and passed by a slim margin of less than 100 votes, only to have part of the measure struck down by a county judge. Councilwoman Kshama Sawant of Seattle, recently elected on the Socialist Alternative platform, has brought the issue of a $15/hr wage into the light of local electoral politics and policy.

Prescriptive Alternatives

Among other initiatives by a wide range of elected officials, District 1 Councilman Diego Bernal and District 4 Councilman Rey Saldaña have taken steps in empowering their communities from the ground up by constructing sidewalks for underserved schools. The Christa McAuliffe Middle School Student Council recently petitioned Councilman Saldaña in order to improve their school grounds, making it safe for students to commute to and from school.

Concerning San Antonio public schools, we could look at another alternative of funneling all property tax into a singular pool with equitable distribution for each district. Bexar County Commissioner Lyle Larson and State Rep. Roland Gutierrez have advocated for the option of consolidating school districts.

VIA transit buses on Houston Street.
A crowded bus stop on Houston Street. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

After living and working in San Antonio without a motor vehicle from 2011-2012, my eyes were opened to the gross inefficiencies of riding the VIA lines. Organizing your work schedule around the available bus times will give you a headache at the very least, with many bus lines frequenting stops only once every hour. Taking the 97 line from IH-10 & Hausman to the center city would take anywhere from 45 minutes to over an hour and fifteen minutes. The same trip by car takes less than 20 minutes. Time will tell whether VIA’s modern streetcar will improve mobility for inner city residents and tourists.

A well-connected mass transit system could also begin the process of desegregating residents and eradicating the myth of the regional and residential “sides” of San Antonio.

Community Conversation

Professor Char Miller, former chair of Trinity University’s history department, and professor Heywood Sanders of UTSA’s College of Public Policy have contributed to the conversation by publishing numerous essays and trade paperbacks concerning politics and policy, “Urban Texas: Politics and Development” and “Public Policy and Community: Activism and Governance in Texas.” Sanders is also a columnist with the SA Current with regularly featured articles on city policy and urban planning.

A recent article in the Atlantic Cities, highlighting a study published in Science magazine, focuses on how poverty itself can hinder one’s ability to lucidly function considering the constant slew of stressors taxing their brain. We must view poverty beyond a lack of capital maintained in a bank account – it is a frame of mind, a frame of existence. Looking at the underlying causes from the root, we must take into account the social context in which people go about their daily lives in impoverished conditions.

I write this article not as an authoritative figure on city planning, but as a concerned citizen passionate about influencing public policy and joining the community dialogue over the complexities of pressing social issues. Together we can attain an understanding in manifesting social progress and move our city towards the world-class standards by 2020 and beyond.

Rene Jaime Gonzalez is currently pursuing an Associate’s degree in Public Administration at San Antonio College. He holds DJ residency at the historic Tucker’s Kozy Korner, just east of downtown on Houston street. Last year NPR Cities published his submission to the “Sound of Your City” project. You can follow his efforts documenting community life in SA through his blog andsoundcloud page.

Related Stories:

San Antonio, Let’s Have a Conversation About Poverty

Embracing the Homeless to Warm the Soul

Brothers & Sisters, Would You Spare a Coat This Cold Winter Day?

Pastries with a Purpose: Beyond a “Crime of Desperation”

Feeding San Antonio’s Hungriest and Homeless

ButterKrust Bakery on Broadway Reborn as C.H. Guenther and Son

The Economics of Placemaking

How I Gave My Wedding To Charity

Rene Jaime Gonzalez is currently pursuing an Associate’s degree in Public Administration at San Antonio College. In 2012 NPR Cities published his submission to the “Sound of Your City” project.