Cars, bikes, scooters, and people all occupy the streets of downtown San Antonio.
Data released from the U.S. Census shows San Antonio's poverty rate highest among the nations largest cities. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

The worsening poverty numbers in San Antonio released by the U.S. Census last week are numbing: One in five of our neighbors, 20 percent, live below the poverty line, an increase from 17.3 percent in 2017. That number gets worse for people below the age of 18, with 29 percent living below the poverty line, up from 25.9 percent in 2017.

That makes the San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area number one on the list of the 25 major U.S. cities with the highest rates of poverty. We were number two in the last U.S. survey – behind Detroit – but now we top the list.

The Motor City has been struggling with vacancy, blight, white flight, and economic decline for decades. San Antonio, in contrast, is the Sun Belt “city on the rise,” as first cited by Mayor Julián Castro a decade ago. One week ago, Toyota announced a a $396 million plant expansion, and a new high-tech Toyota supplier announced a $400 million plant and 900 new high-paying jobs in nearby Cibolo.

Manufacturing advances are part of San Antonio’s good story to tell, but historic inequities don’t go away quickly, and local efforts to systematically address poverty here are only beginning.

The policies that made San Antonio the city it is today are no mystery, and that means policies to address historic inequities also should be self-evident. Building community consensus, however, will not be easy.

The City’s “equity lens” approach to capital investment to fund infrastructure improvements is a big step in the right direction, but as noted by Professor Christine Drennan, Trinity University’s respected chronicler of San Antonio’s historic economic and racial segregation, it will take more than sidewalks and streets to make a real difference.

Other options are available to attack poverty in both the short and long term, although they will require the buy-in on the business community as well as the state’s elected leadership. Local leaders will not be able to do it alone.

Some practical goals: improving education outcomes, raising long-stagnant hourly wages, expanding affordable housing, improving public transportation services, and addressing the state’s worst-in-nation policies for protecting the uninsured and vulnerable children.

Texas has the highest rate in the nation of uninsured individuals. In 2017, 17.3 percent of Texans lacked health insurance. The rate increased to 17.7 in 2018, nearly double the national average. Nothing on the agenda of state elected leaders indicates this is a priority issue. 

State policies and practices that prevent hundreds of thousands of low-income Texans from accessing health care insurance were thoroughly covered by host David Martin Davies in a Friday broadcast of Texas Matters on Texas Public Radio. 

It’s a given that education is the path out of poverty. Several promising education initiatives are already underway, notably the seven-year-old Pre-K 4 SA program, bolstered by the Texas Legislature’s recent actions to fund expanded quality, full-day pre-K. Voters should approve renewal of the 1/8-cent sales tax next year to assure continuation of the nationally-recognized program first launched under Mayor Castro.

Public school districts, challenged by the rapid growth of public charters, have responded with their own long overdue reforms, including the opening of in-district charters. Inner city families have more choice now than ever before. 

The recent naming of a steering committee to establish Early Matters San Antonio, led by former House Speaker Joe Straus and Holt Company Co-CEO Peter J. Holt, builds on existing early childhood education efforts to help nurture and develop healthy, resilient children ready to learn.

The City’s agreement to provide matching funds to enable the Alamo Colleges to launch the Alamo Promise program, providing tuition-free access for all Bexar County high school graduates, will provide much-needed incentive at the other end of the education spectrum. The average San Antonio student takes four years to complete a two-year degree and six years to complete an undergraduate degree, often holding down low-wage employment at the same time.

A proposal to use another 1/8-cent sales tax to increase funding of VIA Metropolitan Transit would lead to greater route frequency, a key to reducing the long commuting times people who do not own vehicles expend getting to and from their jobs.

Giving parents who often work multiple jobs more time at home and less time at the bus stop and on the bus gives them more family time with their children. That benefit might be hard to quantify, but at-home family time is a huge differentiator between families with means and families struggling to make ends meet.

Josie Rios waits at an unsheltered bus stop at the intersection of N. New Braunfels and E. Crockett.
Josie Rios waits at an unsheltered bus stop at the intersection of New Braunfels and Crockett.

The stress and trauma that working class families experience everyday, and how that trauma is passed down to their children and makes learning that much more difficult, is another hard to quantify reality. There is no doubt it is real. 

There isn’t room here to address every prescriptive change, but wages merit an honest conversation. Just because it’s possible to find people to work for $8 an hour doesn’t make it right or good business sense. Low-wage workers have been ignored for decades now as the rich-poor gap widens to historic dimensions.

I’ve read the economists who point to the consequences of paying low-wage workers a living wage, but I question the assumptions. Will adding a few dollars to every hotel room bill, or increasing the cost of a fast food meal, really hurt the economy?

I don’t recall many economists or business leaders protesting the 1.25 percent hotel occupancy tax increase approved in 2018 to fund Visit San Antonio’s marketing reach. Shouldn’t the tens of thousands of low-wage workers in the visitor industry benefit from such an increase, presuming the strategy is working?

This column will generate critics, no doubt, and I invite all reasonable ideas for addressing San Antonio’s great albatross. Despair or indifference, however, are not options.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.