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CAN reports that Austin area’s low-income population grows to 35 percent

Tuesday, April 5, 2011 by Elizabeth Pagano

Community Action Network members warned Monday that 35 percent of Austin and Travis County’s population is considered to be low income, a situation that could have serious consequences for the region.


The Community Action Network (CAN) presented its second annual Community Dashboard report yesterday. The report evaluates 16 indicators designed to measure the “social health” of the community in a comprehensive and compact form.


The most startling news in this year’s report is the rapid growth of the region’s low-income population, which has increased at twice the rate of the total population over the last decade. The report says that fact is more disturbing given the role that income seems to play in the overall health of a community. According to the report, people are considered to be low-income if they earn less than 200 percent of the federal Poverty Level, about $44,000 for a family of four.


“We found that there is a commonality related to income,” said Vanessa Sarria, executive director of Community Action Network. “Income affects whether you do well or not on most indicators.” The low-income population has increased from 32 percent to 35 percent in the last year.


Low-income families fare worse on dashboard indicators such as being less likely to have medical insurance and more likely to smoke, be obese, and report poor mental health. Children in low income families are less likely to enter kindergarten or graduate from high school ready for college.


“We see almost a tsunami coming as we look at the area of social-economic status,” said Ashton Cumberbatch, chair of the Dashboard Steering Committee. “It’s something that we need to be paying attention to as we look towards the future, because it can have devastating consequences on the whole health of our region.”


“This is really critical to the prosperity of all. If we do not do something to move the indicators in the right direction, if we do not enhance the income of these populations, we will not have the tax base to support the economic vitality and foundation of our community in the future,” said Sarria.


Though the picture of the “gross domestic happiness” of the region was not entirely bleak, there were several other troubling data points revealed.


“We found that fully a third of Travis County residents, irrespective of their income, are housing-burdened,” said Travis County Commissioner Sarah Eckhardt, who is the current Chair of CAN. “Further, we’re seeing that workforce access to quality jobs is actually on the decline, and we fear, given what’s happening with the state budget, that it will be further declining.”


Additionally, CAN found disparities in arrest rates of African Americans compared to the white population. Sarria also noted income disparities, noting, “Both Hispanics and African Americans are faring much worse in terms of income than the general white population. They tend to make a third of what the white population makes.”


“It’s very much a challenge to get to the underlying and historic racial inequities that has gotten us where we are today,” said Eckhardt.


With this year’s dashboard complete, CAN is ready to address, and discuss, the problems. “I think it’s the work that we do in-between to further understand our disparities and to figure out what needs to be done that is critical,” said Sarria.


“The dashboard is not necessarily a tool to actually do the work, but it’s a tool for folks that actually do the work to use to see what needs to be done and how we are currently (doing),” said Cumberbach


Austin Council Member Laura Morrison, who is also a CAN board member, saw the release of the data as an opportunity to educate the community about the reality of what is going on in Austin.


“There are great things about Austin, but the fact of the matter is there are a lot of folks here that are in need of rising up and being able to be part of the prosperity and the wonderful things that we’re recognized for,” said Morrison.

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