Like most complex issues that cities in the U.S. face, it will take a multi-pronged approach to mitigate poverty, said panelists during the “Attacking Poverty” panel at San Antonio CityFest on Friday.
Education, affordable housing, transportation, and health care are all pieces of the safety net that needs to be in place to prevent generational poverty and homelessness, said Frances Gonzalez, the San Antonio area program officer for Asset Funders Network.
“The magic $400” is the average amount of emergency funds that a person needs to avoid homelessness and some of the most vulnerable San Antonians don’t have that, Gonzalez said. “It’s not just about race and it’s not just about geography … one catastrophic event and all of a sudden they are homeless.”
The San Antonio Food Bank has always been busy, said its President and CEO Eric Cooper. But when he started in 2001, it was feeding a largely-unemployed population.
“Now everybody’s employed, they’re just not making enough [money],” Cooper said. The Food Bank feeds about 58,000 meals per week in Bexar County and 15 other counties in Southwest Texas.
Each panelist – including Gonzalez; Cooper; Mayor Ron Nirenberg; Christine Drennon, director of Urban Studies at Trinity University; and Janie Barrera, president and CEO of LiftFund – brought their own perspective to the panel, which was moderated by Rivard Report columnist Rick Casey.
For Nirenberg, education is the key.
From the City’s tax-funded Pre-K 4 SA program to the new Alamo Promise program that will provide free community college tuition to area high school students, he said, San Antonio is doubling down on “breaking the cycle of generational poverty.”
About 15 percent – or 381,500 residents – of the San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area live below the poverty line, according to the 2018 American Community Survey. That survey marked the area as having the highest percentage of people living in poverty among the top 25 most populous metropolitan areas.
Some of the root causes of that poverty are built into how the city developed over the years with racist redlining real estate policies that regulated the black population to certain areas and kept them there with no financial means of escape, Drennon said.
“We set that geography a long time ago,” she said. “It’s baked into the landscape and where we live.”
LiftFund, a nonprofit that helps finance new small business and startup companies, has seen a 95 percent repayment rate among clients that come from low- to moderate-income neighborhoods, Barrera said.
“Putting money into poor communities … does it [yield] a return on investment? Yes, it does,” she said.
Seeing fully-employed, yet impoverished residents come to the Food Bank every day, means there is something intrinsically wrong with the wages and benefits employers implement, Cooper said.
Food Bank employees receive a living wage, access to health care, paid time off, and access to some retirement programs, he said. “If every employer would just do that, there would not be poverty.”
But it gets complicated with small businesses and entrepreneurial efforts, Barrera said.
“Small businesses have to start somewhere,” she said, and they may not be able to afford all those benefits when they start.
San Antonio is taking a holistic approach to combating poverty, Nirenberg said, citing the coming comprehensive multimodal transportation plan (ConnectSA), the climate action plan, and housing affordability plan as road maps to ensure that people have “fewer obstacles between them and being able to [provide] the very basics for themselves and their families.”