First grader Brooke Dresch (left) high-fives Evelyn Ramirez, Somerset Elementary School first grade teacher, after getting the right answer to a question during the Yes! Our Kids Can program.
First-grader Brooke Dresch high-fives teacher Evelyn Ramirez after getting the right answer to a question during the Yes! Our Kids Can program at Somerset Elementary School. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Let’s take a bow, San Antonio. We are now the poorest metropolitan area in America as well as the most economically segregated. As in all rankings, someone has to come in last. The problem is, that “someone” is us.

Editor’s Note

Disconnected is a series about economic segregation in San Antonio.

The series debuts a new story every Monday and looks at economic segregation through the lens of the major beats the Rivard Report covers. The goal was to create a human-centric look at one of the city’s biggest problems.

For more information on why we chose this project or to catch up on any missed stories, visit the Disconnected home page.

Instead of depicting San Antonio as a thriving, culturally diverse and growing metropolis filled with opportunity and promise, these statistics perpetuate our image of a poor, undereducated city with limited potential. Why are we not protesting in the streets and demanding an end to this ongoing distinction? Where’s the outrage? And who’s to blame?

We could lay blame on developers beginning in the 1930s who, by contract, kept minorities from buying in their upscale neighborhoods. We could fault the federal government’s Home Owners’ Loan Corporation that designated poorer neighborhoods as high-risk for mortgage loans, or the bankers who for decades redlined poor areas and wouldn’t make home loans in those neighborhoods. We can point to the lawmakers who decreed that school funding should be based on property values, allowing schools in wealthy neighborhoods to receive more funding than schools in poor neighborhoods. 

But with no one villain to point to, it’s hard to focus public opinion and take action. We end up waiting for a hero to appear.

I don’t claim to have the answer, but I do know this: generational poverty, accompanied by a poverty mindset, is one of the biggest obstacles. Poverty mindset is often found in families who have been living in poverty for two or more generations. Over time, the hopelessness these families face begins to instill a belief that the way things are now is the way they will always be. In these families, college and career expectations are rarely discussed, if at all. Sometimes kids are even told not to expect it. Earning $18 an hour is heaven. Since most live paycheck to paycheck, many do not develop the ability to plan. 

Generational poverty grows exponentially. Three families with three children each create nine families, then 27 and so on. In 5 generations, those 3 families could create over 700. Here’s the killer: less than one in five persistently poor children escape poverty by their late 20s and is consistently connected to work or school. The other four remained trapped.

That’s why we can’t keep up. That’s why we keep falling further behind in spite of the great work being done by so many groups and volunteers and the millions of dollars invested by the public and private sectors. 

Still, we’re trying to figure it out. Concerned city leaders with time to give and money to grant are holding conferences, studying new statistics, and conducting strategic planning sessions in an attempt to solve the problem. Progress comes in small, hard fought gains by many. But hard as we try to stem the tide, we are quickly overwhelmed by the exponential increase in families trapped in generational poverty.

San Antonio’s poverty rate increased by 0.9 percentage points between 2017 and 2018, the highest increase among the 25 most populous major metropolitan areas. That means 15.4 percent – or 381,584 residents – live below the poverty line. In the meantime, we plan for bigger food banks and more homeless shelters. We’re spending most of our time and money feeding fish to the poor and precious little teaching the poor to fish.

As we invest in long-term solutions, it’s important that we address mindset early to help all families see prosperous possibilities for themselves and their children. Otherwise the belief that a successful future is out of reach or meant for others will only increase the number of families living in generational poverty and sink our city’s prospects for greatness. We must track and measure mindset shift as early as possible. If no metric exists to measure, we must create one. We must be intentional and work to instill a success mindset in all families.

Replacing the poverty mindset with a success mindset is not rocket science. It’s a matter of rerouting the brain through repetition. It’s done in advertising every day and on social media every minute. It can be done in schools by putting a daily emphasis on self-confidence, planning skills, and high expectations for post-secondary attainment and meaningful careers. It can be reinforced at home and propelled further by the media. We as a community can come together to make sure everyone sees the possibility for success and believes it is attainable.

A city-wide media effort that begins the conversation of mindset and teaches families the basics of fishing for a lifetime is in the planning stages. It is the brainstorm of Roberto Sarabia, general manager of Telemundo, who with Mayor Ron Nirenberg has enlisted the general managers of major media outlets to join in this first-ever effort. They will be donating their public service announcements to the idea that a united community can make anything happen. Our small not-for-profit organization, Yes! Our Kids Can is helping. 

We can reverse San Antonio’s “poor and undereducated” image by disrupting generational poverty through a shift in mindset. What a community believes, a community achieves.

Lionel Sosa is CEO of Yes! Our Kids Can, a not-for-profit organization. Its mission: to disrupt generational poverty by instilling a success mindset in every family, no matter their financial circumstance.