Asked and answered: The poverty question that sparked controversy in the mayor’s race

“What do you see as the deepest systemic causes of generational poverty in San Antonio?”

Mayor Ivy Taylor laughed when she was asked this question at a mayor’s forum three weeks ago in front of San Antonio’s nonprofit community.

“When Mayor Taylor laughed, I understood why: Because you could literally talk about it all day,” said Megan Legacy, executive director of SA Christian Hope Resource Center on the West Side. Legacy was the person who posed this question to Taylor and District 8 Councilman Ron Nirenberg, the only other candidate running for mayor to attend the April 3 forum.

It’s a question that seems equal to quicksand. The more one tries to answer it, the deeper and deeper one gets sucked into the issue.

A few weeks later, Taylor’s response has become controversial. Her response was as complex as the issue itself — touching on education and teen pregnancy — but her decision to begin her answer in a religious way has caused a bit of an uproar. She talked about “broken people . . . not being in relation with their Creator, and therefore not being in good relationship with their families and their communities and not being productive members of society.” Then she continued, pointing to education and teen pregnancy as two other root causes.

“We just have not provided the same opportunities for people to have access to high quality education that puts them on the path for careers in every single part of San Antonio,” Taylor said at the forum.

Nirenberg opened his answer by talking about the loss of the “public common” or “the sense that we’re all in this together” — whether that manifests itself in people not participating in local elections or not participating in their neighborhood associations. He also cited the SA Tomorrow plan and the city’s need to better manage its sprawl and how mismanagement of resources as the city grows tends to weaken even more the city’s weakest communities.

We wanted to throw the question back at Legacy, who runs the West Side center that mentors hundreds of families, and works with them on breaking the chains of poverty.

I agreed with her. I think trauma and brokenness and lack of community and broken relationships—when I say that I don’t mean just necessarily the one dimensional broken relationships. I mean even to the point where maybe someone in the family has mental illness and they sort of are kicked out. Not kicked out of their home, but they are sort of disenfranchised from society and there’s not really a place for them, and navigating the system is so difficult. To the young person who doesn’t have a relationship with their father and they start making poor decisions as teenagers and all they’re seeking is leadership. Isn’t that why teenagers join gangs? They need leadership, they want someone to affirm them and pour into them?

This kind of brokenness in the family unit can also lead to teen pregnancy, “because she’s seeking love in places that are not necessarily healthy,” Legacy said. “And then sort of that generational cycle continues.”

And I think our general infrastructure, as I know Councilman Nirenberg said, really doesn’t lend itself to changing the problem. So you have all these organizations like ours who are seeking to help people out of poverty. For example, we’re trying to teach people to save money. We’re trying to instill healthy financial decisions. We’re saying: Don’t go to the payday lender. It’s 90 percent interest. Save money. But the minute you put money in a savings account and you’re getting help with your housing and you may really need that help, they pull all that (government assistance). So people are unbanked. They’re putting their cash under their mattresses. They’re cashing their checks at Valeros or wherever, and getting charged fees. So already just being under the poverty line, you’re already getting hit with these expenses that someone in the middle class or (who’s) wealthy wouldn’t have to deal with.

We have families who come in here … We had a single mom. She had gotten her GED. She went back to college and she got a job making like $15 an hour. I can’t remember the exact number. The minute she started making $15 an hour, but with two kids, they took away a lot of her benefits. It wasn’t scaled. So now she’s making whatever paycheck, but she’s actually getting less—she has less money in her bank account because she’s working and going to school. So it’s an infrastructure problem.

I think SSDI (Social Security Disability Insurance) has some sort of scaled (system) when someone who’s disabled starts working, they still give them assistance, but they’ll scale it back. But it doesn’t seem to be the same thing for general people on the welfare system. You know? And with the whole, if you make just a little bit too much . . . with the Obama Care stuff, the minimums are so high, how does that help a family whose making $25,000 a year? Are they really going to access healthcare? They are better off being on Medicaid, not working and going to an emergency room. Yet, we’re paying all these taxes . . .

I know, I’m a little bit all over the place right now.

So for these nonprofits, the easiest thing to do: OK, we’ll just feed people—which is enabling them. Here’s some food. We can’t change the system. We’re not going to change you because you have no motivation. On one hand, you can’t blame people for having no motivation. It’s just a hard thing to get out of. On the other hand, there are people who just abuse the system. And so what do you end up? You look at poverty rates around the country, look at San Antonio. (With the) SA2020 indicators, poverty is the one thing that’s actually gotten worse. And I think it takes an approach that addresses the policy maker, and it requires funders, and churches and nonprofit organizations to be strategic and run their organizations like businesses. And look at the longterm effects. That costs a lot of money. And real strategic thinkers are probably going into the corporate sector to make more money. So there are so many elements and barriers in the system that addressing poverty just feels like a very overwhelming daunting task. You have to hit it at every angle. On the micro level with the family who’s dealing with eight different things that are keeping them in poverty. But as a system you have to hit it from every angle.

It’s really hard, that’s why we focus here on one family at a time. We do really in-depth mentoring.

When families come into the SA Christian Hope Resource Center for the first time, a mentor will ask them: What do you want to accomplish? It could be getting their GED. It could be getting a full-time job. And then the mentor and family begin to create a plan to meeting their goals. They’ll go over issues of transportation, housing, financial literacy, literacy, job training and healthcare.

We really try to do it through empowerment. Coach them and guide them. We don’t provide all the resources here, but we help them navigate the very complex system that exists in San Antonio. We want people to get living wage jobs, because we know we’re not doing them any favors by putting them into working poor status, where they’re already at, which is sometimes worse than just being on the welfare system. People are rational. They know that going to work—all that’s hard in itself—but you make less money going to work? I need to feed my kids. I need stability. I need to know it’s going to be OK. I think that’s actually pretty rational. Not that it’s OK, but you know . . .

And I think too often if you aren’t in this world, working in this world, or living in this world, you look at the people in poverty as just lazy. And I think it’s so short sided when you don’t understand the challenge that someone goes through to try to get out of the system.

This article was originally published by the H.E. Butt Foundation’s Folo Media initiative in 2017.

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