San Antonio has reclaimed its status as the most impoverished major city in the country, suggests new data from the U.S. Census Bureau, even as its total share of residents in poverty has decreased over the last decade.
For the 2016-2020 period, an estimated 14.2% of residents in the San Antonio metropolitan area lived in poverty on average in each of those years, more than any other of the top 25 most populous metros in the country, according to figures from the annual American Community Survey.
That percentage represents about 350,000 individuals in the San Antonio-New Braunfels metro area.
The U.S. Census Bureau adjusts the federal poverty line every year based on inflation. In 2020, it was calculated as $26,246 in earnings for a family with two adults and two children and $20,852 for a family with one adult and two children.
The poverty rate is just one of hundreds of metrics the American Community Survey uses to measure social and economic life in the country.
Combating poverty has been the “central focus” of Mayor Ron Nirenbirg’s agenda, he wrote in a statement to the San Antonio Report on Wednesday. “The poverty numbers show that our key policy initiatives — equity budgeting, ensuring access to affordable housing, education, and our unprecedented workforce development program — are on the right track.
When the census last released its five-year rolling averages, a little more than a year ago, Miami’s poverty rate was slightly higher than San Antonio’s. A separate release of census figures covering a one-year period in 2019 considered the two tied. The new figures show San Antonio reclaiming its dubious status as most impoverished city.
But the pandemic and its effects could complicate how these five-year averages reflect the city’s true economic conditions.
Census officials cautioned that five-year estimates are “not designed to measure rapid change during short periods,” and instead offer a long-range view. The 2016-2020 figures, for example, roll together the final four years of the longest economic expansion in the history of U.S. business cycles with the economic shock of the pandemic’s first year.
Looking at the last two discrete five-year rolling estimates, however, the percentage of San Antonio’s population experiencing poverty has decreased. From the first five-year period, from 2011-2015, to the second, from 2016-2020, the poverty rate dropped by almost 2 points.
Although it’s difficult to pull single-year data from the five-year rolling average, the poverty rate may have dropped even further in 2020, as some studies, including from the Census Bureau, suggest pandemic-related financial relief from the federal government alleviated poverty for some.
Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University, said San Antonio’s decrease in the poverty rate could also be distorted by an influx of households with high income levels, which can “statistically drown out” how many low-income families continue to live in poverty.
San Antonio’s metropolitan area grew by a third between 2010 and 2020, according to those year’s censuses, and now totals more than 2.5 million residents.
The share of high-income earning families has risen in that time. In the first half of the decade, according to the American Community Survey five-year average covering 2011-2015, households making more than $100,000 made up almost 22% of the city’s residents.
In the latter half of the decade, according to the bureau’s estimates for the 2016-2020 period, those households made up just shy of 28% of the population. The average share of households making more than $200,000 increased from 4.1% to 6.4% between those two periods.