Pre-K students play shopkeeper' in 2019. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When it comes to fighting poverty and making transformative public investments in the community good, there is no substitute for investing early and often in the education and well-being of socioeconomically disadvantaged children. Investing in socioeconomically distressed adults can also yield positive returns, but the outcome is often less certain.

The distinction matters as two important anti-poverty initiatives are put to voters on the November ballot in a city that the U.S. Census Bureau ranks as having the highest percentage of people living in poverty among the Top 25 most populous metropolitan areas.

That census report was issued last year, well before the pandemic and economic shutdown devastated San Antonio’s service and hospitality sectors and left more than 150,000 people unemployed, with many facing the probability their jobs will not come back.

All but a few outlying voices agree: something must be done, and done now. Making sure that scarce public tax dollars are invested wisely in well-designed programs is critically important and not easy to do when time is of the essence.

The challenge for Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council between now and the start of early voting on Oct. 13 is to convince voters they are up to the job. They deserve the benefit of a doubt simply because so much is at stake for the city’s future and the well-being of the workforce, but that only elevates the shared responsibility to get it right.

In each case, it’s a question of allocating a one-eighth-cent sales tax for the next five years. No new taxes are being assessed, and no tax rates are being raised.

One ballot initiative, renewing Pre-K 4 SA funding, would extend for another eight years a proven program that directly serves 2,000 4-year-olds at its four centers, like many thousands more at early childhood education centers in school districts throughout the county. Those districts have benefited enormously from Pre-K 4 SA investments since the program’s inception.

A second ballot initiative approved by San Antonio City Council on Thursday would use another one-eighth-cent tax for the next four years to fund an estimated $154 million in workforce development programs and higher education opportunities for an estimated 40,000 adults. The City already has dedicated $75 million to workforce development through its Recovery and Resilience Plan approved in June.

Specific allocation of funds remain to be hammered out, but one encouraging indicator is the number of major employers in San Antonio, including USAA, H-E-B, Toyota Motor Manufacturing Texas, and Rackspace Technology that support the plan. These employers know that even before the pandemic, technology was changing the job market faster than the labor market can keep up. Read this Pew Research Center report on the subject.

Workforce development programs that fall short can be traced to government inefficiency and poor planning, notably bureaucracy, contractor corruption, and a failure to deliver important wraparound services like day care and transportation assistance. Private sector watchdogs will be welcome here.

After four years, the same one-eighth-cent sales tax would be reallocated to fund new investment in VIA Metropolitan Transit and other public transportation initiatives, if voters approve a third ballot initiative. That’s a big “if.”

The Nov. 3 ballot will be a long one, with voters starting by selecting the next U.S. president and then moving through many pages of national, state, and local races until at last they come to City initiatives. How many will be well-informed of the nuances and grasp the choices they face is anybody’s guess.

There is another big reason to believe in the proposed workforce development initiative and that is Project Quest, founded in San Antonio in the early 1990s after Levi Strauss & Co. closed two Southside manufacturing facilities here and moved the jobs to Costa Rica, leaving 1,250 Mexican American women out of work and with no severance, health care benefits, or retraining opportunities. That event gave birth to the city’s nonprofit Fuerza Unida activist group.

Project Quest, like the Pre-K 4 SA program, invests deeply in individuals who enter its program, providing training, counseling, and important support services that enable 90 percent of its adult enrollees to move on to higher-paying, more rewarding jobs and careers. Project Quest has drawn national attention, most recently reported in this 2019 New York Times article.

My own views of workforce development programs were forged as a young reporter working at the Brownsville Herald in the 1970s, where investigative stories and a federal grand jury investigation led to the conviction of a corrupt county judge and private contractors who schemed to embezzle millions of dollars sent to the Rio Grande Valley via the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act, a Nixon-era initiative. Nationwide, the $50 billion program served only about 15 percent of the disadvantaged workers originally targeted.

My personal experience should not sway voters or dictate outcomes in San Antonio, but it can serve as a warning. Countless federally funded workforce development programs have failed over the decades. San Antonio needs to demonstrate that well-designed, well-managed programs do work.

Thousands of San Antonio’s workers and their families are counting on it.

Note: Readers who want to delve more into the advantages of investing early in children versus investing later in adults should read the work of Nobel-Prize-winning economist James Heckman, who teaches at the University of Chicago, and his co-author, Brazilian economist Flavio Cunha, who is on the Rice University faculty.

Robert Rivard, co-founder of the San Antonio Report who retired in 2022, has been a working journalist for 46 years. He is the host of the bigcitysmalltown podcast.