San Antonio remains the country’s poorest major metropolitan area, according to new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, though it made the most progress in beating back poverty among its peers of similar size.

In 2018, the Census Bureau reported that 15.4 percent of San Antonio metro area residents lived below the poverty line in its annual American Community Survey. That number shrank by 1.9 percent to 13.5 percent in 2019, tying San Antonio for poorest major metro area with Miami, which reported a decrease of 0.5 percent. 

The San Antonio metropolitan statistical area includes New Braunfels, while the Miami metro area includes Fort Lauderdale and Pompano Beach. Both are among the top 25 most populous metropolitan areas in the United States. In 2019, Washington, D.C., held onto its ranking as the metro area with the lowest percentage of people living below the poverty line. Every metro area on the list reported a decrease or no significant change in its poverty rate.

Though the decrease in San Antonio’s poverty rate seems promising, it is only one marker to evaluate the success of local policies and initiatives, said Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University.

“We always have to be careful [and ask] ‘Who are these people?’ Are these the same people who were in poverty and lifted themselves out, or new people in poverty, or new people moving in who are not in poverty that make our numbers look better?” she said.

“That’s something to always keep in mind, because we do grow so much. Not so much with natural growth, but with in-migration, which tends to be a higher-paid, higher-educated population that’s moving in. They often skew our statistics.”

The American Community Survey estimated 2.5 million people were living in the San Antonio metro area in 2019, an increase of nearly 33,000 people since 2018. 

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the decreased poverty rate in the San Antonio metro area was an “encouraging sign” that the City’s focus on equity has had some effect but reiterated that the City was not finished with the issue. He pointed to the City’s proposition on the November ballot seeking sales tax revenue to fund workforce development, as well as Pre-K for SA.

“I think it reinforces just how much work there is to do because the degree of economic disparity in our community wasn’t created overnight,” Nirenberg said. “Certainly the pandemic has disrupted a lot of the ongoing work, but it has also allowed us to refocus our priorities and redouble the efforts to disrupt poverty long-term.”

The overall trend of fewer people living in poverty was reflected in national numbers as well. The Census Bureau reported Tuesday that the United States’ official poverty rate decreased by 1.3 percent between 2018 and 2019. Texas’ poverty rate also decreased by 1.3 percent in that same time frame.

“No state experienced an increase in poverty rates from 2018 to 2019,” a Census Bureau report stated. “This was the first time in 4 years that no state saw an annual increase in its poverty rate.”

Every year, the federal poverty line is adjusted for inflation. The federal poverty line was $25,100 and $25,750 for a family of four in 2018 and 2019 respectively (though people have been criticizing the efficacy of the poverty line for years). 

Drennon prefers to look at the rate of children in poverty, as it reflects more “long-term” information. In 2018, the San Antonio metro area reported 21.6 percent of its children living in poverty. That number decreased to 20.3 percent in 2019 but is still within the margin of error.

“[The American Community Survey uses] teeny tiny samples of the population,” Drennon said. “If those two numbers are still within each other’s range, can we say ‘celebration?’ Not really, although it does sound good.”

Meanwhile, the national median household income increased by 6.8 percent between 2018 and 2019. In the San Antonio metro area, the median household income increased by 8.6 percent – from $57,379 to $62,355. Between 2017 and 2018, the median household income in the metro area only increased by 1.1 percent. But just because median income rose does not mean the quality of life improved as well, Drennon said.

“It could be part of a larger macroeconomic trend and not speak to quality of life like we hope it does,” Drennon said. “It’s like when you see standardized test scores go up every year: of course they go up every year.”

The San Antonio metro area also reported a 4.4 percent unemployment rate in 2019, an improvement from the 5.3 percent of people 16 years and older who were unemployed in 2018.

Drennon cautioned against premature celebration, however. Just because the poverty percentage decreased from 2018 to 2019 does not mean San Antonio has figured out how to handle poverty, she said.

“I always fear when someone in power gets a hold of statistics like [these], they say, ‘Yay we did it!’ And then back off,” she said.

As far as the 2020 American Community Survey, Drennon said she was curious to see how those results would show the impact of coronavirus in San Antonio, as the city is highly dependent on tourism and hotels – two areas that have been depressed by the pandemic. And Nirenberg said he wasn’t sure what to expect in next year’s ACS data.

“I think the pandemic is going to throw all of these statistics off because of the sheer volume of unemployment and economic insecurity,” he said. “I think what this shows is that the focus on equity and creating a path to economic security and mobility is the right one, even as we see disruptions like the crisis caused by the pandemic.”

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is a general assignment reporter at the San Antonio Report.