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Report shows good, bad and ugly of Travis County economy

Friday, June 8, 2018 by Jack Craver

People in Travis County are enjoying the fruits of a strong national and regional economy. A new analysis shows that rates of poverty, crime and educational outcomes are moving in the right direction.

Between 2012 and 2016, crime dropped by 27 percent. Those living under the federal poverty level decreased from 18 percent to 12 percent. The unemployment rate stands at 3 percent. And, thanks in no small part to the Affordable Care Act, the uninsured rate declined from 21 percent to 14 percent.

The report by the Community Advancement Network, a coalition of two dozen government agencies and nonprofit groups, showed that the improvements were experienced across demographic groups.

And yet, severe problems remain, particularly with regard to the cost of housing, which is rising faster than wages.

Thirty-four percent of households in the county are “housing cost-burdened,” meaning they spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.

The percentage of cost-burdened households also dropped slightly during the five-year period examined, but that is likely due in part to a large number of low-income people moving outside of the county in search of cheaper housing. Between 2010 and 2016, the low-income population dropped by 16 percent in Travis County and 12 percent in Williamson County, but it increased by 21 percent in Hays County.

Significant disparities persist based on race and ethnicity, with whites and Asian-Americans enjoying far greater prosperity than African-Americans and Latinos.

Less than 10 percent of the white population lives in poverty, compared to more than 20 percent of the black population and nearly a quarter of the Latino population. Among children, the disparity is even starker. Only 6 percent of white children are being raised in poverty, compared to a third of both black and Latino children.

Roughly 60 percent of white and Asian-American adults have college degrees, compared to about a quarter of African-Americans and just over 20 percent of Latinos.

African-Americans were 2.5 times more likely to be jailed than Latinos and 2.7 times more likely than whites.

Latinos are by far the most likely to lack health insurance: 25 percent are uninsured. That is a significant improvement since 2012, when 32 percent were without coverage. But it’s more than twice the uninsured rate for African-Americans and four times greater than the white uninsured rate.

Members of the CAN Steering Committee and other local leaders assembled at City Hall Thursday to highlight the report’s findings.

Patricia Hayes, a board member of the Greater Austin Black Chamber of Commerce, noted that the county is becoming increasingly diverse racially and ethnically. Currently the population is 49 percent Anglo, 8 percent African-American, 34 percent Latino and 6 percent Asian-American. However, 48 percent of those under 18 are Latino, meaning the population will become progressively less white in the coming years.

“This is one reason that CAN has placed an emphasis on cultural competence, racial equity and cultural inclusion in the last five years,” said Hayes.

The community needs to do a “better job” of addressing families’ basic needs, she said, highlighting workforce training and education as two key drivers of economic opportunity.

Asked what public entities could do to address the shortage of affordable housing, CAN Executive Director Raul Alvarez said that there was “no shortage” of ideas, but he did not offer any specifics.

Travis County Commissioner Jeff Travillion stepped to the podium and said that the housing problem in the county was one of “supply and demand,” driven in part by people with more money moving into the area and driving up property values. Travillion highlighted a number of affordable housing projects that the Commissioners Court has recently approved, saying it would take government action to provide housing affordable to lower-income households.

Photo by Stuart Seeger (Flickr: Austin Texas Lake Front) [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.

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