Brownsville has pulled ahead of McAllen as the poorest city in America, according to an analysis of data from the U.S. Census Bureau.
The analysis was performed by Internet financial publication 24/7 Wall St. based on the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey, which won’t be officially released until later this month.
The study found that, of the 415,557 residents of the Brownsville-Harlingen metro area, 36 percent live below the poverty level, whereas the statewide average is only 17 percent, according to the Census Bureau.
In contrast, San Jose, California’s third-largest city and the richest in America, the poverty rate is a mere 10.8 percent, according to the analysis.
Additionally, 22 percent of Brownsville residents 25 or older have only a high school diploma or equivalent, while 37 percent have no high school diploma, according to census data.
Another bit of data puts this in a different light, however: More than 59 percent of Brownsville residents 25 or older have a high school diploma or higher credential, according to the Census Bureau.
The percentage of Brownsville residents 25 or older with a bachelor’s degree or higher is 15.3 percent. In Austin, it’s 44 percent.
Whatever individual pieces of census data may tell us, there’s no doubt that being ranked as the nation’s poorest city is a pretty bleak advertisement for those, such as elected and economic development officials, concerned with building up the economy of Brownsville and
Four officials interviewed — City Commissioner Rose Gowen, Mayor Tony Martinez, Brownsville Economic Development Vice President Gil Salinas and U.S. Rep. Filemon Vela, D-Brownsville — all expressed the belief that Brownsville eventually has the power to separate itself from the ranks of the country’s most impoverished communities.
Vela noted that the Rio Grande Valley suffers from a “systemic level of unemployment,” at the same time, the fact that a new medical school is coming to the Valley and the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas at Brownsville are merging ought to help put a dent in the unemployment level.
The possible construction of a SpaceX launch site and even deepening the Brownsville Ship Channel to attract more business — another Vela priority — should likewise help improve the local employment picture, he said.
“I think it is a great step in the right direction,” Vela said. “They are all pieces of the puzzle that hopefully at the end of the day will help us break out of the cycle.”
Gowen said the only way Brownsville will climb out of the unemployment hole it’s in will be to transform itself, a process that’s already underway.
“I think that we’ve proven that even though we are the poorest we can accomplish things without a doubt,” she said. “So money is not the only answer. It’s also vision and persistence.”
Bikeability and walkability, meanwhile, are a hallmark of economically vibrant communities around the nation — not to mention the health benefits, she said. Gowen is helping lead the charge to transform Brownsville along those lines.
Several university studies detail a correlation between walkable communities and higher property and home values, she noted.
“Economic development happens around areas that are walkable and bikeable so much quicker than places that are married to car traffic,” she said.
Partnerships are vital for Brownsville to get where it needs to be, Gowen said. For example, the city’s partnership with H-E-B makes it possible to put on CycloBia.
The Belden Trail is another example of partnership: The city, through the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville, was able to tap into the CDCB’s Ford grant and with the help of BC Workshop design group make the trail a reality.
Brownsville can’t sit around and wait for it to start raining money to address its problems, Gowen said.
“We really have to work with what we have now, build capacity and partnerships,” Gowen said. “That’s what we’re doing, and we believe it’s working.”
Salinas said the city’s low ranking sometimes makes it difficult to attract new industry, though some companies view the area’s vast pool of unemployed and underemployed as a readily available workforce.
He believes that the largely cash economy of the Valley skews census data downward, since cash transactions are virtually impossible to trace compared to, say, credit card transactions. It’s a phenomenon along the entire border, not just the Valley, Salinas said.
But the fact remains that Brownsville’s unemployment rate and household income are not flattering. While teachers and schools often get the blame for the relatively low skill level here, for things to change significantly parents have got to demand their kids do well in school, Salinas said.
“When we, the parents, decide to do that, that’s when Brownsville’s unemployment rate is really going to start going down,” he said.
Martinez said Brownsville is heavy on minimum-wage, service-industry jobs, which are good to have for residents who need them, but not enough: The city needs more higher paying professional jobs, he said.
But that requires more high-paying employers. For those employers to want to be in Brownsville, the overall skill level of the workforce has to come up, Martinez said.
He said that raising the skill level requires all relevant institutions to work together: Cameron Workforce Solutions, Texas Southmost College and Brownsville Independent School District.
What students are learning should dovetail with the needs of employers as opposed to the usual “train and pray” approach, he said.
Martinez said it’s a classic case of infinite need versus finite resources. Still, he expressed confidence that Brownsville will be able to pull itself up.
“If the Red Sox can go from the bottom to the top, so can we,” he said.