Though local and national poverty rates are dipping, the percentage of San Antonio’s population in poverty was the second highest among the top 25 largest U.S. metro areas in 2017, new data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows.

American Community Survey estimates released Thursday show a 14.5 percent poverty rate for the San Antonio metro area, which includes New Braunfels, placing it second after Detroit (14.6 percent).

The Bureau defines the poverty rate as the percentage of people with annual incomes below certain thresholds that vary by family size. In 2017, the poverty threshold for a family of four was $25,283.

Excluding New Braunfels, the poverty rate for San Antonio proper was 17.3 percent in 2017. The city’s poverty rate is nearly twice that of Washington, D.C., which had the lowest rate of the 25 cities, around 8 percent.

“These new Census Bureau numbers demonstrate the importance of our agenda,” Mayor Ron Nirenberg told the Rivard Report on Wednesday. “The 2019 budget is our second with an equity framework designed to bring services in historically underserved areas of the city up to the level in other parts of town.”

San Antonio’s poverty rate slightly declined between 2016 and 2017. In 2016, San Antonio matched Phoenix and Los Angeles for the third-highest poverty rate — 15 percent — among the largest 25 U.S. metro areas. Since then, the poverty rate has fallen by about 0.5 percent, though this decrease is not significantly different from the previous year, according to the Bureau.

The data shows poverty among San Antonio’s seniors – those 60 years and older – declined by 1.3 percent, while the percentage of the city’s impoverished youth remained flat. Also, 26.4 percent of children under 18 years old were below the poverty level in San Antonio in 2017, down slightly from 26.2 percent the previous year.

Poverty rates among the city’s top 25 most populated metro areas. Credit: United States Census Bureau

Earlier this month, City Council began to address the persistent poverty problem by voting 8-1 to accept a new housing policy framework that includes recommendations to increase funding for housing rehabilitation programs, provide displacement assistance, and incentivize developers who build low-income housing, among others. The nonprofit ConnectSA also is in the process of developing a mass transportation system plan that could come before voters as soon as Fall 2019.

On Thursday, City Council will consider a $2.8 billion budget for fiscal year 2019 that includes proposed wage increases for City employees to $15 per hour. The vote comes on the heels of Tuesday’s vote by Bexar County Commissioners to approve the same wage for County employees. A person working a 40-hour work week at $15 an hour would make an annual income of $28,800.

“This is all part of an overall effort to address historic generational poverty that has gripped our city,” he said.

San Antonio has been a longtime low-wage city, according to Maria Tijerina, a leader at Communities Organized for Public Service (C.O.P.S.)/Metro Alliance, a consortium of religious and non-profit organizations advocating for the economic well-being of working families.

“Talking to our working families, we see them working very hard, at times having two to three jobs to stay above water,” she said. “We hear what keeps them up at night. And [low wages] are one of them.”

C.O.P.S/Metro has been pushing local authorities, school districts, and large employers to increase their minimum wage for decades. Tijerina hopes the wage increases approved by the City and County will spillover into the private sector.

Low wages for working families are only one piece of the deeper, systemic problem of generational poverty in San Antonio, said Mary Ellen Burns, senior vice president of grants for United Way. Burns pointed out that nearly 70 percent of families in poverty in San Antonio have just one family member working full time.

“Something that we’re all worried about in major cities across the country is the generational nature of poverty,” she said. “Their energy and their effort is totally directed towards survival.”

According to Burns, targeting support services to children early, and following them throughout their education is the most effective strategy for improving economic outcomes for residents.

“It starts when children are born, from the get-go,” she said, “We know by kindergarten who is going to struggle.”

The national poverty rate continued to decline for the third year in a row from 2015 to 2017 — a total of 2.5 percentage points — to a rate of 12.3 percent in 2017. The stretch of annual declines is the longest since a four-year period between 1997 and 2000, according to the Bureau.

Emily Royall

Emily Royall

Emily Royall is the Rivard Report's former data director.