San Antonio is often best understood from afar, by a distant observer who can realistically compare it to other places. Recent months have seen three new studies that place San Antonio in a larger context and can help educate us about our community.
Local business and political leaders have touted the conclusions of a report by the Milken Institute on job growth that put San Antonio at number one on a list of the nation's "best-performing cities." Compared to a host of other places that have been hard hit by recession and a seemingly stalled national economy, San Antonio has seen job growth spurred by the relocation of military medical training to Fort Sam Houston and a number of major public construction projects.
But if the Milken Institute's number one ranking (for just one year) was the stuff of major political speeches and newspaper headlines, the other two views of San Antonio have received far less visibility and acclaim. An August 2012 report by the Pew Research Center on residential segregation by income also put the San Antonio metro area at number one. But local politicos have not been boasting about how segregated and divided San Antonio is, with a level of income segregation that increased by 89 percent from 1980 to 2010.
San Antonio has long been a divided community. The terms "North Side" and "South Side," "East Side" and "West Side" have for decades been code words for differences in race, ethnicity, and income. San Antonio's growing income segregation, exemplified by the advertisements for new subdivisions with homes "from the 250,000s" or offering a "sophisticated lifestyle from the upper-$300,000s," has larger implications. It means that local public schools, too, are increasingly segregated by income, leaving behind those who can't afford the newest housing in a distant subdivision. And it means that San Antonio's inner city and downtown are ever more distant from where higher income families live, work, and shop, and less economically healthy as a result.
The news from the recent report by the Social Science Research Council on youth disconnection in the nation's 25 largest metro areas is no more encouraging. Examining the circumstance of young adults between 16 and 24 who are neither working nor in school, the authors term 14.7 percent of the country's youth "disconnected." And once again San Antonio is notable, ranking 20th out of 25, with 15.9 percent of area youth "disconnected," compared to Boston's nine percent.
The portrait of San Antonio painted by the report is not very pretty. It notes that "median earnings are exceedingly low — the typical worker in San Antonio can expect to earn under $27,000 annually from wages and salaries, the lowest earnings of the twenty-five largest metro areas." And, the report goes on, "San Antonio has the highest rate of teen motherhood among the country's largest metro areas, a rate nearly double the national average."
Since the 1980s under Mayor Henry Cisneros to the 2010s under Mayor Julián Castro, the city government has sustained a host of major public development and investment projects. We built the Alamodome and are now embarking on a major expansion of the Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center and a new set of downtown streetcar lines. We built the AT&T Center and the River Walk extensions and river improvements.
We've succeeded in building and growing, but that public investment and growth hasn't translated into greater opportunity for a large share of our local populace. It's past time for a serious discussion of where we are as a community and what kind of San Antonio we want to achieve for all local residents, not just an affluent few.