San Antonio welcomed more residents and improved its poverty rate over the past decade, according to the most recent estimates released by the U.S. Census Bureau. But the next decade is likely to be heavily influenced by a pandemic that has upended years of economic stability, experts say.

The Census Bureau published the most recent American Community Survey 5-year estimates Thursday, including such data as population demographics, employment status, income, and poverty. Between 2015 and 2019, 17.8 percent of San Antonians lived below the poverty line, a slight improvement from 20.2 percent during the 5-year period between 2010 and 2014.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg said he was encouraged to see the dip in people living in poverty in the American Community Survey data.

“That shows we’re on the right track, and our agenda of restoring equity and ensuring access to economic mobility is taking shape,” he said. “It’s beginning to show results. [In] the American Community Survey update that happened a few months ago, we had the biggest turnaround in metro areas. … That goes to show our focus on socioeconomic equity, and access to education, and economic mobility in all parts of the city is the right one and needs to be sustained.”

Nirenberg was referring to the Census Bureau’s September report that ranked San Antonio-New Braunfels as the poorest metropolitan statistical area (tied with Miami) but showed that the metro also recorded the most improvement among the 25 most populous metro areas. Christine Drennon, director of urban studies at Trinity University, cautioned against relying too heavily on that report and reiterated the same caution again with the American Community Survey’s most recent 5-year estimates.

“I’m still a little bit pessimistic just because the cost of living in our city is going up so rapidly, especially in real estate,” Drennon said. 

Drennon said the conversation around poverty needs to include housing prices, area median income, and who is being impacted by variables such as these. The median household income of the San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area increased from $52,786 between 2010 and 2014 to $60,327 between 2015 and 2019 – a 14.3 percent increase. But the increase in the city of San Antonio was smaller – from $46,317 to $52,455, a 13.3 percent change.

Looking at data from the metropolitan area instead of the city of San Antonio “hides what’s going on in the city,” Drennon said.

“This is me looking at these numbers with a little bit of a cynical eye, but we’ve got more in-migration into the metro area than I think that we do into the city proper,” she said.

Suburban areas outside of San Antonio city limits skew some of the census data, too, Drennon said. Those tend to be wealthier and accept a lot of “in-migration” movers seeking better schools and more space. But Nirenberg said he thinks the trend of moving outside the urban core has slowed in the past decade.

“The 90s and maybe even the 2000s in Texas was a story of sprawl and about wealth moving into the suburbs,” he said. “It’s changed over the last 10 to 15 years to be a focus on access to high-quality education and good jobs in the urban areas of the state. San Antonio has been a lagger in that. … We’ve been behind our peers nationally and some in the state with regards to creating access to economic mobility in the urban area, but that has changed in the last 10 years but has been a focus of my agenda as mayor.”

While the San Antonio metro area improved income levels in the past decade, it’s unclear what the pandemic – and its economic collateral damage – might mean for future progress.

Drennon said she expects next year’s poverty estimates to increase following the coronavirus pandemic. She pointed to the striking image in March of thousands of cars waiting in line at the San Antonio Food Bank.

“Those aren’t just people who are looking for a free handout,” she said. “They’re people in serious need.”

According to a Columbia University study published in October, 8 million Americans fell into poverty since May – and San Antonio did not come out unscathed, Nirenberg said. Between March and September, more than 300,000 people filed for unemployment in Bexar County.

“I think we have to be sober enough to realize this pandemic has been devastating,” he said. “It has been the single event that has pushed so many Americans and tens of thousands of San Antonians who are one event away from economic catastrophe to the edge.” 

Future data will be severely impacted by the events of 2020, Drennon said, but the pandemic has served as a way to highlight gaps in society. She hopes to see success out of Pre-K 4 SA and the freshly-approved workforce development initiative from the City.

“Those are redistributive investments in people,” she said. “We’ve been doing ‘play-space development,’ and to me, there’s no evidence that is actually causing families to stabilize and become socially mobile. Just investing in human capital is what we need to be doing.”

Nirenberg echoed Drennon’s call for investing in people, not places.

“It’s public health, it’s food security, it’s housing, it’s certainly education and workforce,” he said. “That needs to be our measure of success: What is the impact on people?”

Meanwhile, San Antonio continued its steady population growth. The American Community Survey reported 2,239,222 residents in the San Antonio metropolitan area between 2010 and 2014 and 2,468,193 between 2015 and 2019 – an increase of 228,971 people, or 10.2 percent. Nearly half of that growth came from San Antonians; the city added 122,645 residents in the same time frame, an increase of 8.9 percent.

But that growth could also obscure the reasons behind the poverty rate change. Drennon said she worries that the local discussion around alleviating poverty will fail to account for people moving into new housing developments along Broadway Street who can afford to pay higher rent, rather than truly understanding whether San Antonio has improved social mobility in its population.

“I always wonder, are we losing sight of our long-term San Antonio families who have weathered a lot over the last several generations, because of in-migration of people who are well-employed, well-established financially, and very secure?” she asked. “And because of that, are we losing sight of the old neighborhood and the old families that have just stuck it out?”

Jackie Wang covered local government for the San Antonio Report.