Robert Rivard

 San Antonio has set in motion a range of long-term initiatives to lower the poverty rate in a city with more than 20% of its population living below the poverty level.

The tactics are many, but the strategy is clear: improve education outcomes, develop a smarter workforce, promote innovation and diversify the economy. UTSA’s drive to Tier One statusSA2020. Geekdom. Pre-K 4 SA. Teach for America. CodeHS. Café College. The Alamo College Academies. I’m leaving out many other proven local initiatives, but my point is San Antonio is doing a lot to face its challenges.

Mayor Castro stretches to shake hands
Mayor Julián Castro stretches to shake hands as he makes his way through the crowd at La Fonda on election night, just before the Pre-K 4 SA initiative passed on Nov 6, 2012. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

In a city where as many as 30 percent of households struggle to pay their monthly utility bills and meet other basic expenses, and more and mores seniors are living longer with less of a financial safety net, the real poverty number is surely higher. Latinos and African-Americans suffer disproportionately higher rates of poverty, so in a city with the nation’s fourth largest Latino population, efforts to fight poverty are critical to the city’s long term future.

But what about the present? What shorter-term options are out there for local officials to alleviate poverty and address income inequity in San Antonio? We hope you agree the leadership of San Antonio should explore other mechanisms to relieve local poverty rates while Washington policymakers debate — if that is the right word — new steps to combat poverty. For those who might believe the problem is too deep to combat, I would point to two local institutions that did not exist in their present form a decade ago: Haven For Hope and the San Antonio Food Bank.

Haven resident Aaron Osivnik enjoying the instrumental carols.
Haven resident Aaron Osivnik enjoying the instrumental carols from the San Antonio Symphony holiday performance in the facility’s dining room. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

It’s an overdue, if uncomfortable, community conversation. A city on the rise should be secure enough to have that conversation, even as we measure progress on so many long-term fronts. The Rivard Report will be inviting some of the many people in San Antonio who fight poverty every day to contribute articles with their recommendations for moving the city forward on this front. Social workers, economists, academics, elected officials, non-profit leaders – we’d like to hear from anyone and everyone with an informed position on the city’s poverty rate, what is working and what we can do better. Email us at if you would like to contribute to the conversation over the coming months.

This week marks the 50th anniversary of LBJ’s “War on Poverty,” an occasion that has kindled a national conversation among policymakers and others about the program’s long-term effects, and what ought to be done to further reduce poverty levels nationally. Click here to listen to President Johnson’s now-historic State of the Union address delivered on Jan. 8, 1964.

Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio members volunteering at the San Antonio Food Bank. Photo courtesy of Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio.
Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio members volunteering at the San Antonio Food Bank. Photo courtesy of Boys and Girls Club of San Antonio.

Get beyond the talking heads on cable television and most economists seem to agree the War on Poverty has led to significant declines in poverty rates, from 19% back then to 15% now, yet 46 million Americans still live below the poverty line. And life for those living just above the poverty line isn’t so easy either. Most Americans do not realize the breadth of poverty in the world’s richest nation.

At the same time, growing income inequity has made life for those living in poverty even harder to get by. It might be cliché, but it’s true. The poor are getting poorer and the rich are getting richer. Contemporary economic growth has heavily favored those at the top of the economic pyramid and left behind those who live at the base.

In sum, the War on Poverty has served to contain poverty but has failed to remedy the problem. No one suggests class warfare is the answer. Sticking it to the rich might make some feel better, but it solves nothing and punishes success. What to do about the gap, however, is yet another matter of contention dividing the two political parties and leaving them in an ineffective deadlock.

Jared Bernstein, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington and a former chief economist to Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr., offered a balanced assessment of the War on Poverty in a Jan. 6 article on the New York Times’ Economix blog. Bernstein concludes that the safety net built by LBJ is working but badly needs reinforcement.

That could come from the U.S. Congress as debate proceeds on a significant increase in the nation’s minimum wage from its current $7.70 to $10.10, a 40% increase that could lift millions out of poverty  and represent a major first step toward addressing income inequity.

An estimated 18,000 people attended the H-E-B Feast of Sharing at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center. Photo by Page Graham.
An estimated 18,000 people attended the free H-E-B Feast of Sharing at the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center on Dec. 21, 2013. Photo by Page Graham.

The Atlantic Cities published an article yesterday that stated such an increase would remove 4.6 million Americans, or 10 percent, from the poverty rolls. It also pointed out that income inequality comes not only from the accrual of great wealth by a very small percentage of Americans, but also the real decline in the buying power of the minimum wage over the last three decades.

For San Antonio, which still has a large low-wage economy of service workers, a new minimum wage of the scale envisioned would be nothing less than a miracle for tens of thousands of impoverished workers. Yes, some costs would have to be passed on, but it’s a fair trade. Who wouldn’t pay a little more for their coffee and breakfast tacos or a hotel room or to have their house cleaned if it meant transforming lives and, indeed, a city?

LBJ’s “unconditional war on poverty” has been a national cause for 50 years, but San Antonio has often come to realize that the best way to move the city forward has been to take matters into our own hands. We hope our proposed citywide conversation inspires some of you to come forward with our own ideas on the subject.

Follow Robert Rivard on Twitter @rivardreport or on Facebook.

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Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report, is now a freelance journalist.