If you piece together the stream of news related to children in Bexar County, you can probably reach an intuitive conclusion about the status of racial equity, from dysfunctional school districts in predominantly Hispanic regions of the city to crimes being committed against black and Latino children in communities of concentrated poverty.
It makes people uncomfortable to connect race to issues like education, child welfare, health, and poverty. During a day-long workshop hosted by the Center for Public Policy Priorities, the organization presented stark data in support of bringing race into the conversation on all of these topics in an effort to find more effective solutions. Though we may fear that talking about race will reinforce racial stereotypes, not talking about it lets broken systems and bad policy continue, said Center for Public Policy researcher Jennifer Lee. Ignoring key data, like racial disparities, also handicaps those seeking solutions.
(Read More: State of Texas Children: Big Gaps from Bad Policy)
Policy makers and representatives from many child welfare groups were present at the meeting, including state representatives Diego Bernal (D-123) and Ina Minjarez (D-124). Mayor Ivy Taylor and Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff also spoke during the event.
“Unfortunately we’re here to share and discuss some of the disturbing facts that we are experiencing in our community,” Taylor said.
Those disturbing facts primarily reflect racial differences in access to healthcare, education, and financial security. Taylor pointed out that of the 130,000 children living in poverty in Bexar County, a disproportionate majority are Latino. The Center provided data showing that median income for Hispanic families is $48,000, while White families have a median income of $91,000.
In a state like Texas, ranked 41st in the country for child wellbeing, it’s rare that the data looks promising for the general population, but even when it does, white children do experience a higher proportion of the improvements.
Lee pointed out that while Bexar County does have some of the lowest uninsured rates for children, that rate is still higher for Hispanic children, around 10%.
During the afternoon workshop, Paula Dressel and Audrey Jordan of the Race Matters Institute pointed out the value of disaggregating data as much as possible, to try to discern the important factors influencing outcomes.
In the insurance case, the high level of uninsured Hispanic children is tied to the number of their families who fall into the “coverage gap” that occurs when a family makes too much money for Medicaid, but not enough to qualify for health insurance subsidies. When parents don’t have insurance, children are much less likely to have insurance, Lee said.
Wolff cited this gap as a particular point of contention, as he spoke about the County’s efforts to extend healthcare through the University Hospital system and County-run clinics.
“It’s not the easiest thing in the world when you have a state that you should be ashamed of for refusing to expand Medicaid,” Wolff said.
Wolff listed many of the institutional changes the County has made to stop cycles of poverty. Keeping families together has been one of his offices key priorities, along with informing incarceration policies and children’s court financing. Both primarily effect Hispanic and black families.
“A child never forgets their natural parent,” Wolff said. “If you can help that natural parent stay with them, they are much better off.”
Many of the Center’s recommendations focus on similar policies and practices that have a direct effect on inequity, from insurance coverage to school finance structures. Referring to two maps (see below) comparing race and income across Bexar County, Lee pointed out that the nearly identical distribution was not organic.
“None of these divisions are natural in any way,” Lee said.
Housing policy, lending practices, and public investment all contribute to creating the various “sides of town” we see in San Antonio. While few of those policies are still legally institutionalized, the effects continue. Public and private investment are present, but not at a pace that is going to make up the disparity without concentrated policy changes.
The Center for Public Policy believes that these changes are possible.
“We believe in a Texas that gives everyone, all children, a chance to compete and succeed in life,” said Ann Beeson, Center for Public Policy executive director.
Lee applauded efforts like the Children’s Health Insurance Program, and even the minor efforts at fixing the school finance structure. She also recognized San Antonio’s commitment to early childhood education as the best way to minimize what she calls the opportunity gap.
“Coming into San Antonio, I have to admit, I think you all get this pretty well,” she said.
The opportunity gap, as opposed to the achievement gap, focuses on the vast differences in resources a student has coming into school, rather than the vast differences in graduation and standardized test outcomes once all those relative advantages and disadvantages have played out.
Of course, while Pre-K 4 SA and other early childhood efforts are trying to narrow the gap earlier, the Center for Public Policy points out that the gap really begins before a baby is even born.
Maternal health varies widely across races, with black women being the least likely to receive adequate prenatal care, and subsequently experiencing higher rates of premature birth, low birth weight, and infant mortality.
Again, Lee said, this is not a genetic problem. There is nothing inherent in black mothers that causes this. Research suggests that serious maternal stress is a more likely culprit.
“Black women are most likely to experience multiple stressors,” she said.
Babies born into these circumstances show marked difficulty as they develop, and with limited access to high quality early education, are likely to start school at a serious disadvantage. Problems compound if the child’s school is underfunded and experiencing high teacher turnover, which it likely is. Lee reported that 42% of black students go to schools with high teacher turnover, as opposed to 31% of Hispanic students and 22-23% of Asian and white students.
At each stage in the child’s life, a proactive policy change could make a difference. Better healthcare and support for women before and after pregnancy, better early education options, and equitable school financing would go a long way toward narrowing the opportunity gap for this child.
The Center recommended that Bexar County advocate for policy in four areas. They support including race in data analysis, to insure that all factors of wellbeing are properly addressed.
They also charged the community to increase support for working families, and to advocate for policies that do the same. Current policies, Lee said, are out of touch with modern family structures. Single parent households are more common, as two-parent homes where both parents work. Many children are being raised by grandparents or other family members with no income outside social security. State policies, however, assume a traditional breadwinner/caregiver division of labor in every home.
“Our policies have not really adapted or caught up with the modern families of today,” Lee said.
While there is little to be done outside of Austin to close the coverage gap or fix a broken school funding system, Lee believes that community voices are being heard. Even as the state waits for the Texas Supreme Court to hand down a ruling on the current school finance suit, she encouraged those there to speak up for the changes that need to be made in education.
Top image: Conference attendees engage with an interactive idea board that shares ideas on the well being of Texas children. Photo by Scott Ball.