The big news is that the unemployment in the Austin metro area is way down this month to just 3.8 percent, according to the Texas Workforce Commission. That’s great news for some in Central Texas.
But the reality is more complicated than that according to the May 2014 Community Dashboard Report from Community Action Network (CAN), a partnership of public, private, governmental and faith-based organizations. Its latest check on Central Texas reveals that, yes, more people do have jobs in Austin and Travis County than in previous years, but that more people than ever are working multiple jobs just to make ends meet. Plus, a growing number of them are being forced out of Austin to the suburbs where they’re even more isolated from the support services they need to break the cycle of poverty.
“We’re one of the fastest growing cities in the country,” says Vanessa Sarria, CAN’s executive director, “but we are having a really hard time coping with our economic success.”
UNEMPLOYMENT STILL A PROBLEM
While the local media reported a six-year low, 3.8 percent unemployment rate for Travis County this month, contrast that to CAN’s unemployment rate for African Americans in Austin – 12 percent – and Hispanics in Austin – 8.4 percent.
Travis County Unemployment Overall in May 2014 – 3.8%
For Hispanics Only in 2012 – 8.4%
For Blacks Only in 2012 – 12%
“Unemployment rates for the region are tricky to use as indicators because we have a lot of new jobs here in Austin that don’t pay a living wage,” says Vanessa Sarria, CAN executive director. “We have a bifurcated economy.”
INCOME DISPARITY, TOO
With unemployment comes low income, and for Hispanics, that number is especially discouraging. In 2012, Hispanic median income was just $39,000 compared to $40,000 for Blacks and $57,000 for the region overall. Non-Hispanic whites earn more at a median of $70,000.
According to the report, 36 percent of people in Travis County are considered low-income, meaning they live below 200 percent of the federal poverty level (in 2012, that was considered about $46,500 a year for a two parents and two children).
The report findings also show that Hispanics are making less now than they did before the recession in 2007, from $46,850 then to $39,000 in 2012. Considering that Hispanics also make up 34 percent of Travis County, this steep decline in income in the past five years points to a quickly widening gap between the haves and the have-nots.
SUBURBANIZATION OF THE POOR
Since 2000, individuals with low incomes have increasingly moved to the Eastern portions of Hays, Travis, and Williamson counties. At the same time, many areas of Central Austin have lost low-income residents.
“What’s happening is that we are creating pockets of poverty that are disconnected from services, jobs and transportation,” says Sarria. Austin’s expensive rental market combined with a lack of transportation options isolate many of our most vulnerable families.
GOOD NEWS AND PROGRESS
Sarria does report a couple of good news changes in Austin. First, the crime rate in Austin is going down, even as we become a more urban community. We can also feel good about high school graduation rates going up.
But overall, Sarria says that Austin’s explosive economic growth has not been a boom for everyone. “We hear all these great stories that Austin has recovered and we’re doing well economically; we’re a powerhouse. But we have to remember that not everybody is benefiting from this recovery.
“And everybody matters,” says Sarria. “The service workers matter. The people who taking care of our kids, who are the artists in our community, they are all important. And we need to create a place for them as well.”
WHAT YOU CAN DO
There are two ways to approach your involvement. First, you can choose a needs area and find out which organizations, projects and efforts address that issue from the CAN Dashboard.
Second, if you already have an issue you’re involved with, review these recommendations from CAN and figure out how you might incorporate them into your efforts:
1. Build culturally and linguistically proficient services.
Many of the organizations are led by people who don’t understand the language or culture of the people they serve. And vice versa. Nonprofits might assume, for example, that the population it’s trying to serve doesn’t have the same goals. Or the nonprofit leadership may be trying to solve problems without taking into account the assets it has in that community already. Every organization should check that its leadership mirrors the population it serves and make sure to engage them in the solution.
2. Consider the whole family.
“There are nonprofit organizations out there doing wonderful things, but they may only help kids. The reality is, though, that that kid goes home to his family every night. If one member of the family has mental health issues, for example, that’s going to have implications for the entire family.”
This kind of approach can require better or more flexible funding, increased collaboration among service groups and more time to see an impact.
3. Consider housing and transportation together.
As poor people take to the suburbs, they may get farther away from their work, their hospitals, their family and friends. Those extra miles — gas, wear and tear of the vehicle, tolls — add up quickly for a family on a budget.
“The challenge here is a jurisdictional one,” says Sarria. “Housing, transportation, jobs, services need to be planned together, and we don’t have a group with authority over the region to facilitate that.” While we do have a Capital Area Council of Governments and Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Sarria points out that other regions with similar organizations have merged those two to do more cross-jurisdictional work.
4. Put social services where people need them.
Expanding services to the suburbs will require an approach that involves agencies, governments, nonprofits — and funders, donors, volunteers and activists — from across the region. This collaboration can mean everything from sharing data, coordinating outreach efforts and working with these populations to identify the services they need most.
Many Austin-area nonprofits are struggling with this problem now, trying to figure out how to create a system that reaches their clients. As Austin grows economically and geographically, we need to break away from the paradigm of downtown East Austin nonprofits and build for a service structure that truly serves those who need it most.