Three-year-old Juliet is a bright and energetic toddler with big brown eyes like her father and curls down her back like mom. She knows most of her colors and how to ask for what she wants, and plays independently while in the kitchen of her tidy home in the Las Palmas neighborhood as chicken for caldo boils on the stovetop.

Juliet is growing up in a house with both parents, who hold full-time jobs, meaning little about her daily life resembles the socially and economically disadvantaged childhoods of her parents. And yet they are among the more than 380,000 people in the San Antonio metropolitan area who live below the poverty line.

The hard truth of this city’s entrenched poverty came into sharper focus last fall, when the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey reported that San Antonio had the highest percentage of people living in poverty among the 25 most populous metropolitan areas – higher than both Houston (23rd on the list) and Dallas (12th).

San Antonio is also one of the nation’s most economically segregated cities. Although there are pockets of poverty in many areas of the city, the worst poverty, unemployment, and education outcomes are concentrated in four zip codes – 78202 and 78208 on the near East Side, 78207 just west of downtown, and 78211 in Southwest San Antonio.

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The divide is stark. The Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan public policy organization, developed the Economic Distress Indicator (EDI) to measure economic segregation by combining seven metrics – including poverty, housing, and employment – into a single measure. In the 78207 zip code, the EDI for 2012-16 is 97.8, which is considered “distressed,” while the 78258 zip code, where Stone Oak is situated, is 1.1, or “prosperous.”

This means high-income families tend to live next door to other high-income families, and low-income next to low-income, potentially intensifying the kind of economic advantages and disadvantages that shape the lives of residents for generations.

But as the youngest daughter of Gabriella Pansza and Joseph Valle, Juliet knows only that the family next door owns a paleta truck, her cousins live near enough to come over and play, and the mini-trampoline in her front yard is great fun.

(From left) Juliet Valle, 3, enjoys a popsicle with her parents Joseph Valle, and Gabriella Pansza. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Getting Ahead

With her brother and sister years ahead of her and in school, the toddler sees their mother drop them off every day, always with the same chant: Pansza prompts, “You’re a … ?” and the teens Joseph Jr. and Jolie respond, “Leader.” “You’re not a … ?” and they answer,  “Follower.”

Not following is what motivates Pansza. She’s taking steps to break the cycle of generational poverty that has plagued her family.

Raised by single moms often unable to feed and provide stable housing for their kids, Pansza and Valle grew up fast, they said, and dropped out of school early on. Pansza had her first child at age 16.

Today, 13 years later, they are in a committed relationship, working full time – he as a tradesman, she a waitress – and raising three children. The couple is able to make their $700 monthly rent and pay most of their bills, if not in full, when they come due. There’s always just enough for a treat from the neighbor’s paleta truck.

In some ways, Pansza and Valle are far ahead of their own parents.

Yet they have no savings, can’t afford to fix two broken-down cars in the driveway, and, lacking employer-sponsored health insurance, rely on the County’s financial assistance program, CareLink. With a combined annual income of less than $22,000, the Pansza-Valle family makes well below the $29,967 threshold established by the federal government for a family of five to afford basic needs.

They have loan debt and got behind on bills last fall when Pansza needed emergency surgery and couldn’t work.

In December, there was nothing under a small Christmas tree in the house, so Pansza reminded the kids to be grateful for what they already have and hoped for a few gifts from the Family Service Association, a social services organization.

Women and Children

San Antonio women such as Pansza are 2 percentage points more likely than men to fall below the poverty line, according to census data. Thirty-seven percent of single-mother family households locally are living in poverty, compared with 9 percent of married-couple households.

But the population perhaps affected most by poverty in San Antonio is children, both in numbers and the lack of government-backed social safety nets commonly provided to adults in poverty.

In 2018, 29 percent of San Antonians under the age of 18 lived below the poverty line. Nationwide, Latino children are nearly five times more likely to grow up in high-poverty neighborhoods than white kids, according to census data, and 2017 census reports show more than 73 percent of San Antonio children are Hispanic.

It’s also true that children who are born into poverty often grow up to be adults in poverty. Census data shows children born in the lowest income quartile tend to remain low-income into adulthood.

And escaping poverty is harder than ever for those children. Ninety percent of children born in 1940 grew up to earn more than their parents; today, it’s only half.

But the effects of childhood poverty go beyond economic mobility. Poverty is one of the greatest threats to healthy child development, according to researchers at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, sponsors of the annual Kids Count report. Living in poverty has been found to contribute to behavioral, social, emotional, health, and learning problems.

It’s also true that kids who grow up with parents who have lower levels of education are far more likely to live in low-income and poor households, according to a report by the National Center for Childhood Poverty

Henry Flores, professor emeritus in the political science department at St. Mary’s University, studies poverty in San Antonio and is writing a book on the subject.

Flores calls poverty a “structural artifact of economic development” that is reinforced by the way the city develops, “so that people that live in those communities have a much more difficult time pulling themselves out of there.”

To lift people out of poverty, he said, city leaders should do more to tie economic development incentives to proportional funding of programs that directly impact poverty-stricken areas. That might mean developers offer scholarships for children living in poverty or fund programs that identify available jobs, provide job training, and assist employers in paying higher wages to their employees.

This city’s efforts, he added, are too focused on temporary fixes – subsistence programs that don’t address poverty’s root problems. What’s needed, Flores said, is a more holistic approach that tackles a combination of factors: education, jobs, training, and nutrition assistance.

“In San Antonio, I would say we have not done that,” he said. “We’re sitting there waiting for a leader to take the bull by the horns and really move forward with it. It’s not just a small neighborhood problem, it’s a citywide problem.”

Henry Flores, professor emeritus in the political science department at St. Mary’s University. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Segregation and Education

San Antonio’s history with poverty and economic segregation is long. A 1968 CBS documentary, “Hunger in America,” exposed conditions on the city’s West Side that shocked the nation. Even three decades later, many were still left behind after the city’s rapid growth in the 1980s and 1990s.

A Brookings Institute report following the 2000 census found that almost half of San Antonio’s households were earning less than $34,000 annually, and these lower-income families were disproportionately minorities, as Latinos and black households typically earn $17,000 less annually than white households.

Educational attainment is a critical piece of the puzzle, and San Antonio consistently lags other cities in that area. In 2018, the percentage of the city’s adults over 25 who completed high school or higher levels of education was 82 percent, compared with 83 percent statewide and 89 percent for Austin. In one San Antonio school district, South San, where the poverty rate is 90 percent, the four-year graduation rate for the class of 2018 is just over 78 percent.

Poor educational achievement correlates directly to low wages, disconnected youth, and lack of access to health care, factors that start the cycle all over again in the next generation.

Michelle Estrada dropped out of high school after only four months and at age 26 has three young children. It is a path her parents and most of her 12 siblings took as well, though the two youngest are being homeschooled.

Estrada followed her mother into a string of commercial housekeeping jobs. Once, while working part time as a hotel maid, Estrada found the cleaning chemicals made her sick, but when she was offered a front desk job, she turned it down, worried she wouldn’t be able to learn how to use the computer.

Michelle Estrada (left) and her mother Bertha Gonzalez. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

Now living with her mother and a sister who help supervise Estrada with the children – a court-ordered requirement in her case with Child Protective Services – the young mother and extended family depend on charitable food pantries to put meals on the table.

“I don’t like [to struggle], but it’s something that I have to deal with and it is hard,” Estrada said. “Don’t get me wrong, it’s real hard, especially if you don’t have help from the kids’ dad. I have to do everything on my own, making sure they have the clothes that they need and stuff like that.”

Wages and the Economy

More people in San Antonio work in service-related and support jobs than any other type of employment. These tend to be low-wage jobs – from clerks and bookkeepers to cooks and bartenders – that pay at or below the hourly minimum wage of $7.25 in Texas. 

The average hourly wage in the San Antonio-New Braunfels metropolitan area, $22.43, is about 10 percent below the nationwide average. But that average whitewashes the low earnings in San Antonio’s largest occupational groups.

First on the list is office and administrative support occupations, which pay a median hourly wage of $16.37. Food preparation and service come next, paying a median hourly wage of about $10 an hour.

The average hourly wage of a hotel housekeeper in San Antonio is just over $10, and getting benefits is rare. Though some employers offer health care and retirement benefit packages, enrollment among “back of the house” staff, such as cooks and housekeepers, is low simply because they can’t afford to pay insurance premiums or fund a retirement plan, said Willy Gonzalez, president of the Texas chapter of Unite Here Local 23, which represents some hospitality industry workers.

Some of those employees are highly skilled at their jobs, he said. “We have to look at them as people that have a critical job in a critical industry for the city and compensate them accordingly.”

But census numbers show the median income in Bexar County has decreased, from $54,175 in 2017 to $54,149 in 2018. Buying power also dropped. According to the consumer price index inflation calculator, $54,149 in September 2018 had the same buying power as $52,943.49 a year earlier.

“We can’t always be a low-wage, low-skill city,” said Belinda Roman, assistant professor of economics at St. Mary’s University. “San Antonio has always sold itself as a low-wage city, and that kind of sets us up as we’re cheap labor all the time. At some point, that notion has to change. … [Minimum wage] doesn’t pay for life in San Antonio anymore.”

Joseph Valle stops at a gas station as he takes his partner Gabriella Pansza to her job as a waitress. The family is currently without reliable transportation and depends on the vehicles of relatives. Credit: Scott Ball / Rivard Report

To Flores, families such as Juliet’s are a prime example of how the “working poor” can’t get ahead because low educational attainment leaves them stuck in low-wage jobs with no benefits.

“They’re contributing, but the amount of money they make will never be enough for them to pick themselves up because they live at such a margin that they’re constantly dealing with bills and catching up,” he said. 

Job training – something Flores said could make a difference for low-wage workers – is next on Pansza’s list of goals. She wants to get certified to work with kids someday or in a dental office. Her determination to better herself and support her children is unwavering.

“My son wants to be a basketball player because he loves basketball, but I tell him, ‘You could be a dentist,’” she said.

In the meantime, she looks back on her own childhood with gratitude for how it inspires her to persevere.

“I thank my mom for our struggle because it made me who I am today,” she said. “And to appreciate that I at least have a roof over my head [and not like] those people that are in the streets or sidewalks or in the shelters, too, ’cause I had been there.”

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger

Shari Biediger is a journalist and writer in San Antonio, and a business reporter for The Rivard Report.