Social service providers and experts said they were not surprised San Antonio poverty rates rose between 2017 and 2018 despite the city’s concerted efforts toward addressing the issue in the past year.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 20 percent of residents in the city of San Antonio live below the poverty line, an increase from 17.3 percent in 2017. 

The Census Bureau released 2018 state and local-level statistics Thursday, which showed that the San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area has the highest rate of poverty among the 25 most populous metropolitan areas in the nation. In the San Antonio metropolitan area, 15.4 percent of residents live below the poverty line.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the census numbers underscore the importance of the City Council’s agenda to “create a culture of equity.”

“The city’s 2020 budget seeks to address many of the underlying problems that thwart economic opportunity for too many San Antonians,” he said. “We are continuing to fund job training and early childhood education, and the budget includes initial funding for Alamo Promise. Additionally, we are working to promote job creation and economic development.”

In January, the City, Bexar County, business leaders, and Alamo Colleges announced Alamo Promise, a program providing free community college tuition to all seniors graduating from Bexar County high schools. A 1/8th-cent sales tax funds Pre-K for SA, a program that expands access to pre-kindergarten, and will go to voters for renewal next year. Toyota recently selected San Antonio to invest $391 million in expanding its manufacturing plant in South San Antonio. And City Council passed its budget in September using an “equity lens” that directed funding to improve streets in historically overlooked districts. 

But San Antonio still has more work to do, said Christine Drennon, the director of Urban Studies at Trinity University. Redistributing the budget to focus on underserved areas is a step in the right direction, but simply addressing infrastructure needs is not enough, she said.

“The only part of the budget they’re bringing it to is streets and sidewalks,” she said. “It’s time to expand it. If we really are thinking about equity and social mobility of this city’s children, then we need to expand that equity lens beyond physical infrastructure, though those benefits are quite important. But we need to get it into social services beyond the degree which it already is.”

Dr. Christine Drennon, Director of Trinity University’s Urban Studies program and Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology.
Christine Drennon, director of Trinity University’s Urban Studies program.

And just because more jobs are moving to San Antonio does not guarantee upward mobility for residents who already live in the city, she added.

“There have been a couple of announcements of economic developments, like the truck factory,” Drennon said. “Probably well-paying jobs. The question is who is getting those jobs and is our workforce prepared for those jobs? They would move potentially young people who may now be in poverty into the middle class. Our track record has been us moving in a new labor force because we haven’t prepared our young people well enough to take those jobs.”

The people who struggle to put food on the table also are often employed, said Eric Cooper, president and CEO of the San Antonio Food Bank. The unemployment rate in San Antonio rose slightly from 3.2 percent in 2017 to 3.8 percent in 2018, while the national unemployment rate was 3.1 percent in 2018, a slight dip from 2017 when it was 3.3 percent. But the people who use the food bank can’t pay their rent, utilities, or buy food with their paychecks, Cooper said.

“What’s not being maybe told or understood is that they are underemployed, and there are not a lot of wage development opportunities with many of the employers that employ our clients,” Cooper explained. “And so they are the working poor. … They are working, but they’re still in poverty. Many are still working. That was the trend that we had been seeing for several years, and we’re working to meet that need and close that hunger gap.”

The San Antonio Food Bank will announce two new capital projects on Friday in pursuit of closing the hunger gap. It will build a new 60,000 square foot culinary center on its campus that offers culinary training and nutrition education but also functions as a high-production kitchen, Cooper said. The New Braunfels branch of the food bank also will launch a campaign in 2021 to build affordable apartments tied to supportive services for families.

“That’s new for us, the area of housing, but it’s consistently the competitor in the household budget that also supports food,” Cooper said. “We feel like working to address the shortage of affordable housing options in New Braunfels will help, but will also help create a conversation in the community around the complexity of the need.”

Patti Radle, volunteer director at West Side nonprofit Inner City Development, echoed Cooper’s words: People need affordable housing and meaningful employment to lift themselves out of poverty.

She said she was unsurprised by San Antonio’s increased poverty rate. She and her husband live near the Alazan Apache Courts, where the poverty rate is very high, she said.

Patti Radle works with a volunteer at Inner City Development.
Patti Radle works with a volunteer at Inner City Development.

“That diverse percent between what life is like in the far north side of town and what it’s like in our neighborhood – the gap is so immense and it feels like it’s getting harder and harder for people to afford homes, medications, that sort of thing,” she said.

San Antonio needs to push harder for affordable housing around the city, Radle said – safe, secure housing.

“Not just any old housing, but a place that is dignified enough to be living in,” she said. “The roof doesn’t leak, the floor doesn’t need to be leveled.”

Drennon added that an even more significant indicator of the city’s progress in addressing poverty is to look at the number of children living in poverty. In 2017, 25.9 percent of San Antonians under the age of 18 lived below the poverty line. In 2018, that rose to 29 percent.

“We’ve got so many young people moving in,” Drennon said. “They tend to move in and if they do, they tend to be higher income because they have mobility. How we’re doing on taking care of our own population and ensuring they’re socially mobile, the kid number gives us the better idea.”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.