A woman and her child spend time together outside of their apartment at San Juan Square. Photo by Scott Ball.
A woman and her child spend time together outside of their apartment at San Juan Square. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Of the 25 largest metro areas in the United States, San Antonio has the second-highest percentage of people living in poverty, according to the latest numbers on poverty from the U.S. Census Bureau.

This is not a new development, but rather a tragic continuation of the long history of deeply entrenched inequity that has created generations of impoverished residents. New data also points to stagnating median incomes in San Antonio – a problem we must begin to stare down as we prepare for unprecedented population growth.

A study released in 2017 by the U.S. Partnership on Mobility from Poverty indicated only 16 percent of persistently poor children (those living more than half their lives from birth to 17 years in poverty) were in school or working consistently in their late 20s. The causes of these stark outcomes are well researched, but often remain debated along political lines. Solutions are seemingly even more partisan.

Oft-cited remedies for these challenges include education and training. Both offer opportunities to lift people out of poverty and advance middle class wages, and there is plenty of evidence to prove they work. This approach also supports San Antonio’s strategy of developing a quality talent pipeline to boost economic development in the region.

The City, County, and organizations like the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation are all working on and investing in strategies to address talent gaps in our community – gaps that not only affect current business operations, but also hinder business expansion and attraction efforts.

However, underlying these strategies is the paradox that education and training efforts help move people out of poverty, while at the same time the barriers associated with poverty prevent people from taking advantage of these opportunities. This paradox of poverty applies to our community, and until the underlying opportunity infrastructure of health care, transportation, housing, child care, education, digital inclusion, and food security is strengthened, it will likely remain a challenge.

When so many required policy solutions need to be made at the state and federal level, communities are faced with trying to find innovative solutions that circumvent waiting for significant legislative changes in an era of gridlock and grandstanding partisanship. In the past few years, our community has done tremendous work to enhance our opportunity infrastructure through smart policy.

Commuters board a VIA Metropolitan Transit bus at the corner of Travis Street and St. Mary's Street.
Commuters board a VIA Metropolitan Transit bus at the corner of Travis Street and St. Mary’s Street. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Though the City’s emphasis on housing and transportation might not seem directly connected to the work of addressing poverty, both are essential. Rising housing costs in correlation with stagnating wages are a devastating blow to those living on the margins. The City is limited in its ability to affect wages and median incomes in the near term, but it does have an opportunity to alleviate some of the pain through smart housing policy with more immediate investments.

Our city’s largest economic and employment centers typically come with housing prices outside the reach of those in poverty. Some work can be done to create affordable workforce housing in these hubs, but transportation will remain critical in helping drive economic opportunity. If we connect residents efficiently and affordably with economic centers, we enhance prospects for those who are limited by job opportunities within their own neighborhoods. This will be of growing importance in the next few decades of increasing density.

Over the past five years we have also seen significant improvements in graduation and completion rates at the Alamo Colleges, and our school districts have improved outcomes despite continued financial inequity. Yet, even with these strides, we still have much work to do.

Our community lacks quality affordable child care, and access to affordable health care is out of reach for many. Rehabilitation for those coming out of incarceration is also limited. These are the most frequent barriers those working every day to connect people to education and employment opportunities encounter.

For all people to be able to truly connect with a system of economic opportunity, we must continue to build on other components of our opportunity infrastructure and ensure these efforts are connected in a single-policy approach that is specifically designed to confront poverty holistically and equitably.

There is no miracle solution to addressing poverty – it is a slow and steady marathon of progress that improves the system over time. Generational poverty did not happen in a year, and it won’t be solved in one either. But being paralyzed by the enormity of the challenge can’t be accepted. Action and change is required now.

To address a problem as complex as poverty, there needs to be local unity on a policy and solutions agenda and a clearly defined level of local investment in opportunity infrastructure. There will always be competing priorities, but if we are serious about staring this problem down, then we need to put a stake in the ground as a community with a holistic approach.

Today, we piecemeal components of the solutions without understanding the full set of problems, needs, and associated costs. This is not a request to throw money at a problem, but there are clear funding shortages. However, a smarter shared community agenda would allow for optimization of resources and demonstrate clear return on investment.

It is time for us to build our opportunity infrastructure and stare down the systemic barriers that keep people in poverty. This should start by truly understanding the reality of the communities we serve. We must invest in fact-based solutions that can be scaled, stop funding the ones that do not work, and do it with a collaborative regional perspective. We must commit to the hard truths about the history and realities in the city we all love.

This will be challenging, but certainly not as difficult as living in poverty.

As chief mission services officer, Steven Hussain leads the Goodwill San Antonio mission to provide educational and employment services to individuals within the agency's 24 county service area. He previously...