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The stark reality of San Antonio’s entrenched poverty is not news. San Antonio has long been cited as one of the most economically segregated cities in the country, with high poverty rates and low education outcomes particularly prevalent in the Hispanic and black communities, which constitute a majority of the city’s 1.5 million residents. This reality came into even sharper focus in fall 2019 when data from the U.S. Census Bureau showed San Antonio had the highest percentage of people living in poverty among the nation’s 25 most populous metropolitan areas.
While the city and local economy continue to grow robustly, a visible disconnect exists between the opportunities enjoyed by the city’s better educated, more gainfully employed residents and the people who struggle to get by in low-skill, low-wage jobs, many caught in a cycle of generational poverty.
After the census data was released last year, Rivard Report editors and reporters agreed to deploy every member of the editorial staff to address the issue by reaching out to people who allow us to tell the story from a human perspective rather than through statistics. This following articles are part of a series that will run through the end of March.
BY SHARI BIEDIGER
Gabriella Pansza is taking steps to make sure her children overcome the economic disadvantages she experienced as the child of a single mother who didn’t always have stable housing. Her youngest daughter is growing up in a house with both parents who hold full-time jobs. Yet the family is among more than 380,000 people in the San Antonio metropolitan area who live below the poverty line.
PART ONE: EXTRA
BY IRIS DIMMICK
In the wake of the U.S. Census Bureau report showing more than 15 percent of the metropolitan area’s residents lived in poverty, City of San Antonio officials dove deep into the data and recently produced a report containing 15 policy recommendations – some broad in scope and some specific – for tackling a problem that has plagued the city for generations.
BY IRIS DIMMICK
Ema Avila, her husband, and two small children moved into their new three-bedroom home at the end of November after spending two months helping crews from Habitat for Humanity of San Antonio build it. Even though homeownership is a proven way to build wealth and economic opportunity, low-income families like Avila’s historically have been sectioned off through lending practices such as redlining and city planning rules. Consequently, they have been kept away from wealthier neighborhoods with better schools, infrastructure, food options, and health care systems.
PART TWO: VOICES
COMMENTARY BY JIM BAILEY
Between white flight, historical redlining, the Federal Highway Program, exclusionary zoning, and the mortgage interest deduction, San Antonio has created such a finely gradated system of segregation and inequality of wealth-building opportunity that any longtime San Antonio resident can likely tell you how much someone makes by what neighborhood they live in. Alamo Architects’ Jim Bailey has a plan to change all that.
BY ROSEANNA GARZA
With a wife and four children and making less than $40,000 a year managing a restaurant, my father didn’t take sick days and rarely saw a doctor. Despite a poor diet, little exercise, and a smoking habit, he lived most of his life without serious health complications. But in 2017, at age 60, he had a massive stroke. With no insurance, this catastrophic illness created an array of problems that have irreparably affected my dad and the rest of our family. This is his story.
BY EMILY DONALDSON
Most of San Antonio’s failing schools are concentrated in the poorest areas of town – the same areas that historically have had the lowest graduation rates, the highest number of dropouts, and the largest number of students deemed not ready for college. The neighborhood surrounding Laredo’s Dovalina Elementary School is also poor, with many of the same hardships, but its students defy the odds. In 2019, the U.S. Department of Education named it a National Blue Ribbon school, and it’s not the only high-achieving school in deep South Texas. Here’s what these schools are doing to help their students succeed.
BY JJ VELASQUEZ
A survey at Lanier High School last year revealed more than three-quarters of students lack internet access at home. One of those was senior Uriel Agundiz, who would go to McDonald’s and buy a snack off the dollar menu to use the restaurant’s free Wi-Fi network so he could keep up with schoolwork. But an initiative by San Antonio Independent School District and a Sprint-affiliated nonprofit has bridged the gap for thousands of district students on the wrong side of a digital divide – the chasm between those who have internet access and those who do not.
BY JACKIE WANG AND SCOTT BALL
Anthony Longoria can’t afford a car. To get home from his job at a Southtown restaurant, he depends on VIA Metropolitan Transit, in particular the late-night bus service known as the “downtown lineup.” When he gets as far as that bus will take him, he still faces a three-mile walk to his apartment. Longoria’s two-hour nightly commute highlights the challenges of living in a city where residents without personal vehicles must rely on a bus system that often does not connect them with jobs efficiently.
BY BRENDAN GIBBONS
San Antonio consistently has the highest asthma rates of any major city in Texas, but the disease that robs people of breath as their airways constrict does not affect all parts of the city equally. Zip codes in low-income neighborhoods on the East, West, and Southwest sides had some of the highest rates of people going to the hospital for asthma. Jessica Gutierrez has spent most of her life in a Westside neighborhood with the 78228 zip code, where hospitalization rates are higher than average. With a 6-year-old daughter and a 4-year-old son in need of regular medication to treat the asthma they’ve had since childhood, she faces difficult choices when trying to find health insurance coverage she can afford.
BY BRENDAN GIBBONS
The coronavirus outbreak has not only upended San Antonians’ daily lives, it has put the city’s persistent economic disparities into sharp relief. For residents like Virginia Kowalik, an unexpected crisis like a pandemic hits especially hard. In her 70s, she has little regular income – $1,000 a month from Social Security, plus another $75 from a small retirement account. But that’s not enough to cover her living expenses, plus homeowners’ insurance and property taxes. That’s why she supplements it with around $300 to $400 a month selling art and handicrafts at an antiques mall, a job she now worries will put her in danger of contracting the virus.
BY NICHOLAS FRANK
Even before the coronavirus outbreak, the elderly residents of The Sorento senior apartments were barely able to support themselves on small fixed incomes. A small weekend food program run by Bihl Haus Arts helped fill a vital need, but the pandemic and accompanying panic-buying of food has put pressure on the grocer supplying the program. “In peak times, we’d get meat and beef and chicken and lots of veggies and some canned goods and lots of dairy,” said Bihl Haus Executive Director Kellen McIntyre, “and that’s probably not going to be the case for a while.”
BY SHARI BIEDIGER
For those living in poverty, a lack of assets isn’t the only burden of daily life. They deal with the consequences of past decisions and an uphill battle to make different choices. Michelle Estrada dropped out of high school and works as a housekeeper to support her three children, her situation precarious even before the coronavirus outbreak froze many people in place. While some of her challenges are common to those in poverty, others are unique, creating a complex array of needs that cannot be tackled easily, even by the many organizations working locally to address economic disparity.
BY ROBERT RIVARD
More than six months ago, the U.S. Census Bureau published a report that should have profoundly disturbed every San Antonian. The city ranked first among the nation’s Top 25 cities for the highest percentage of people living in poverty. The journalists at the Rivard Report pledged to put a human face on economic segregation here, to find stories that would reach readers who have never experienced poverty and have little firsthand understanding of it as a condition. Our assumption: What is not understood cannot be fixed.