A report recently released by the City of San Antonio provides 15 policy recommendations – some broad-stroke, some specific – for how to tackle poverty.

Most recommendations in the report, which was compiled by City staff, call for further investment in financial support, education, and safety-net services but doesn’t discuss potential costs or how such investment would be funded. The report points out that $454.4 million in local, state, and federal spending was invested in addressing barriers and challenges to economic and social mobility in fiscal year 2020.

In 2018, the San Antonio area had the highest percentage of people living in poverty out of the top 25 most populous metropolitan areas, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey.

The census data was “a shock to a number of people who probably previously hadn’t paid enough attention to it,” Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger told the Rivard Report.

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San Antonio had been near the top of that poverty list for several years, but being at the very top – surpassing Detroit – attracted headlines and attention from local leaders. The margin of error in the census report means the list isn’t a hard and fast ranking system, but the census numbers elevated the issue.

Click here to view the report.

The report’s recommendations use as a framework a 2019 report by the San Antonio Asset Funders Network, a group of private, public, corporate, and community foundation grantmakers.

Among the recommendations in the City’s report are to invest in a robust referral system to connect both service providers and residents in need, workforce training for higher-paying jobs, legal services for debt claim and eviction cases, expanded services such as daycare for single mothers attending work or education programs, and working with Bexar County and the State Legislature to reduce residents’ reliance on predatory payday and auto title lending by offering down payment assistance and low-cost financial coaching.

The report also indicates the recommendations that have already begun to be implemented; roughly 10 have, at least partly. For example, the City last year established a right-to-counsel pilot program for tenants facing eviction.

“[The report] affirms the direction that we’ve taken on some key priorities over the last few years in particular housing, transportation, access to education, and inclusive development,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg said. “It underscores why an equity approach is so important for this community. … My hope is that the report will be a touchstone for city councils now and into the future to make sure that we don’t veer off course.”

There’s a lot more that can be done in the area of providing financial counseling and assistance with enrollment in benefits, said Melody Woosley, director of the City’s Department of Human Services. “A lot of people don’t know the the benefits that might be available.”

The City launched its annual Volunteer Income Tax Assistance (VITA) program last week that provides free tax preparation for individuals and families earning up to $55,000. 

“It’s about connecting people to the credits they deserve,” Woosley said. “There are a number of benefits that are not being accessed. … If we can’t get their income up fast enough, we can at least help with a mix of benefits that help keep their costs down.”

A vast majority of the recommendations call for the City to partner with private, nonprofit, or other public entities, and therein lies one of the biggest challenges to implementation, said Bridger, who oversaw production of the report. “The City can’t do it alone.”

San Antonio Metropolitan Health District Director Colleen Bridger explains the Tobacco 21 proposal to city council.
Assistant City Manager Colleen Bridger. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

The report ties in a lot of the work the City is already doing related to affordable housing, domestic violence, and other challenges the community faces. “We can’t address poverty in its own bubble,” Bridger said. “We have to be these master chemists and figure out how to pull in all of these other things.

“Nonprofits, faith-based, City, County, State – we all are working on parts of the problem, but maybe we’re not all looking around and seeing what everybody else is doing and coordinating some of that work towards this ultimate goal. [The report] gives us a common language where we can talk about our bubbles … how they all fall under the poverty umbrella.”

Often governments offer services to try to be a safety net for disadvantaged populations, she added.

“The problem is, nets still have holes in them,” she said. “So rather than being a safety net for the entire city and still having too many people fall through those holes, we need to start creating blankets that have no holes in them – recognizing that we can’t build a blanket that covers to the entire city – but putting those blankets in the areas of highest need and being OK with that.”

Targeting investments to help the most vulnerable pockets of San Antonio’s populations might be difficult for elected officials who represent large swaths areas of the city where poverty is not as concentrated, she said.

“But if you message the fact that the entire city does better when there’s less of a gap between those who have and those who do not, then we can make [the case],” she said.

The recommendations will be considered and prioritized by several City Council committees – including Transportation and Mobility, Community Health and Equity, and Workforce Development – and then brought before the full Council for review, Bridger said.

Councilwoman Shirley Gonzales (D5), who chairs the transportation committee, will coordinate other committee chairs to discuss and prioritize the report’s recommendations.

“I would like for our Council committees to really own some of the top line policy recommendations to really make sure that we’re implementing what’s in the report,” Nirenberg said.

The goal is to get a consensus on City Council on what policies or funding to pursue ahead of the mid-year budget adjustment process that starts in May and the fiscal year 2021 budget process that starts in June, Gonzales said.

She expects that it won’t take long to turn this report into actionable budget items because the report itself was created in-house by City staff.

The City has a “habit of outsourcing” work like this with consultants and task forces, which doesn’t foster a sense of ownership among City staff, she said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll see some commitments to following through – from staff and Council.”

In 2018, 18.6 percent – or 381,584 – residents of the San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area were living below the poverty line compared with 15.5 percent in Texas and 14.1 percent in the U.S. The poverty threshold for a family of four was a total annual income of $25,701.

“[The census data] gave us the opportunity to really start to have this conversation about poverty,” Bridger said. “Just like any other problem the city is dealing with right now, it’s not a simple problem.”

Among those factors explored in the report are employment and income, education and skills development, wealth and assets, business entrepreneurship, affordable housing, homelessness, physical and mental health, and access to transportation.

The report paints a clear picture of economic segregation – people who live in the northern areas of the City have better health, education and income outcomes – and also identifies disparities among race and sex.

The median hourly wage among blacks and Hispanics with a bachelor’s degree or higher is $23, compared to $29 for non-Hispanic whites, according to the report. Meanwhile, across the city, “women experience higher rates of poverty compared to men” and single females are the head of 55 percent of households living in poverty.

The report’s findings shouldn’t be surprising, Gonzales said.

“This wasn’t news to me – it’s confirmation of things I’ve been talking about for seven years,” she said. “I feel like [many people] have been very reluctant to talk about it because it’s such a downer.”

The City has made moves towards making San Antonio more equitable, but the emphasis through its budget has been largely focused on infrastructure, she said. “Now we need to direct resources to people.”

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Iris Dimmick

Senior Reporter Iris Dimmick covers public policy pertaining to social issues, ranging from affordable housing and economic disparity to policing reform and mental health. Contact her at iris@sareport.org