A new study reported that San Antonio’s worst poverty, unemployment, and education outcomes are concentrated in four zip codes, making the city one of the nation’s most economically segregated. A program announced Tuesday seeks to change that by teaching the disadvantaged how they can go from barely getting by to building long-term, generational wealth.

A two-year study of census data, surveys, and focus groups by area grantmakers and bankers found the residents of zip codes 78202, 78207, 78208, and 78211 have worse than average outcomes in employment, health insurance coverage, income, and education.

The 78202 and 78208 zip codes are adjacent to one another on San Antonio near East Side, while 78207 is located just west of downtown. The 78211 zip code is located in Southwest San Antonio.

The challenges create barriers that keep low-income San Antonio residents in a cycle of vulnerability, potentially unable to develop savings, attain post-secondary education, and own a home or reliable transportation – assets that contribute to financial stability for generations, according to the study.

The San Antonio Area Asset Funders Network (AFN) sponsored the study, which was released Tuesday, with financial backing from the San Antonio Area Foundation and JPMorgan Chase. AFN is a collaboration of foundations and financial institutions that is funded at the local and national level in part by the San Antonio Area Foundation.

“While we’re still investing in programs and services from a health and human services perspective, we realize that there is a need to really deepen those investments, focus on programs and services and strategies that really help families build wealth, build assets, so that … they are empowered to take control of financial decisions,” said Becca Brune, president and chief operating officer at the San Antonio Area Foundation.

The study was supported by a steering committee of regional foundations and banks, the report looked at demographic, economic, education, and health care data to describe San Antonio’s low-income families.

Several nationwide studies have highlighted San Antonio’s economic disparity problems in recent years, including a 2012 Pew Research Center report. The AFN study is just the latest to spotlight the issue and offer a solution for what researchers found to be a population that feels caught in the cracks of the system. 

“One of the top themes that came out of the focus groups is that when you’re in the middle, you’re always left behind,” said Ellen Stone, director of research, Texas Appleseed, a nonprofit focusing on social and economic justice that developed the study. “[But] it was encouraging to see a lot of aspiration, a lot of hope. There’s a lot of energy if people can just be given the right tools. People want to build themselves, but they just felt like sometimes the system was pushing back.”

The economic inequity study also included a review of initiatives by the City of San Antonio to combat growing disparities, a survey of local nonprofits working in the asset-building field, such as the Family Service Association, and focus groups with individuals who benefit from services such as financial counseling to reduce debt.

“The social services support system in our community is extensive,” said Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) at the presentation Tuesday. “But we can definitely use some help in making it more nimble and improving our collaboration. At the City, we’ve been working to level the playing field for our low-income communities through local policy approaches.”

As examples, Sandoval cited the equity budget process as an effort to invest in areas of the city that were “left behind” in the past, and the council’s approval last year of a mandatory paid sick leave ordinance, which has been delayed by a lawsuit filed by business groups.

“I am determined to see some form of paid sick leave adopted in San Antonio and I’ll be working on that in the future,” she said. “It allows more people to remain not just healthy but employed and still able to provide for their family.”

The study reported that while San Antonio is more racially integrated than other cities in the United States, according to the report, poverty is segregated and concentrated in majority Hispanic and black communities.

Other findings in the report include:

  • San Antonio families have lower median credit scores, higher delinquent debts, and limited savings compared to national levels.
  • Though San Antonio has relatively low unemployment rates, many available jobs pay low wages.
  • Most low-income San Antonio renters spend more than a third of their income on housing, and evictions are on the rise.
  • Economically disadvantaged students in San Antonio’s public schools are not leaving school ready for college, and there is low educational attainment in San Antonio’s lower-income zip codes.
  • San Antonio has a high uninsured rate, which disproportionately impacts low-income Hispanic and black families in need of health care.
  • Women of all ethnicities and African American men are the least economically mobile populations in San Antonio. 

The study concluded a significant lack of economic opportunity exists in San Antonio, and that inequity could be addressed by expanding asset-building strategies aimed at low-income families. They defined asset building as the ability to gather resources that will help people spend, save, borrow, and plan for economic advancement and unexpected hard times.

This fall AFN is launching a financial coaching hub to help nonprofits train counselors for one-on-one coaching. “Financial coaching is critical. It is a game-changer, said Frances Gonzalez, regional program officer for AFN in San Antonio. “The intent is to build capacity at the local level with quality coaching that meets national standards.

AFN will provide the funding and support for the program, which will start in October with the first 30 counselors in training, and Gonzalez invited all nonprofits with such programs to contact her through AFN.

A panel of experts – including leaders from the University Health System Foundation, the Alamo Colleges District, Methodist Healthcare Ministries, and the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce – also addressed the officials gathered at the Area Foundation offices Tuesday, and spoke of challenges to economic mobility in San Antonio. Those challenges ranged from affordable housing and low wages to educational attainment and health insurance.

“We know what the problems are. We know where the attention and the resources need to be,” said Lourdes Castro Ramirez, president of the University Health System Foundation, who stressed the need for a continued focus on affordable housing.

“What your study does is reinforce that if we collectively focus on this population, we will begin to move the needle. You’ve outlined the strategies to do that,” she said. “There is already work underway. We just need to stay focused and consistent and not deviate to the next big thing that comes along.”

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Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is the development beat reporter for the San Antonio Report.