By Amanda Hart
Illustrations By: Maria-Elisa Heg and Blake Jones
Recently, Houston has been receiving praise from some rather noteworthy places. Forbes Magazine named us “America’s Coolest City.” The New York Times thinks we are the seventh best city to visit. Travel and Leisure said we are the best burger city in the country. We can’t help but smile every time we hear or read about how we have the lowest cost of living, a flourishing real estate market, a vibrant art scene, and more bike paths and parks than most other major American cities. It seems like every month we get a new award or make another “Top 10” list. Due to our growing popularity, it’s easy to convince ourselves that everything is looking up for the city we all know and love. Four days after Rick Perry announced he wasn’t going to run for re-election, he made his first public appearance at a market briefing here in Houston. According to Perry, the city and the state are leading the way in job growth and have shown the rest of America how to effectively evade a recession. Houston is presented as a poster child for the future of prosperity. Houston is being made out to be a beacon of hope during a time when many cities are struggling to keep afloat. If we really are the city of the future then we need to address the economic, gender, and racial inequalities that we either have the privilege of ignoring or the misfortune of living.
In March of 2012, the Kinder Institute of Urban Research released a report that identified Houston as the most ethnically diverse city in America. According to the most recent census data, 39.7 percent of Houston identifies as white, 35.3 percent as Latino, 16.8 percent as African American and 6.5 percent as Asian. It was due to this diversity that Houston and the Kinder Institute started spreading the diversity gospel. The gospel is correct in that we are the most diverse city in America, but what’s missing from this discourse is the extent to which segregation exists within our communities.
The Kinder Institute report failed to adequately depict the reality of what is actually happening throughout our Houston neighborhoods. The report practically danced around the fact that while Houston is diverse, it is also extremely segregated. Neither the Kinder Institute nor Houstonians ever choose to divulge this part of the report every time we share the gospel and mention diversity and Houston in the same sentence. Furthermore, the report made no attempt to explore the wage disparities and percentages of uninsured among each ethnicity. According to the Pew Research Center, Houston is the most socially segregated city out of the nation’s 30 largest metropolitan areas. In fact, Texas accounts for the top three cities on the list when it comes to economic segregation: Dallas and San Antonio are second and third, respectively. It was discovered within a U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey that the per capita income for Houstonians identifying as white is $40,231, compared to $19,171 for African Americans and $14,557 for Latinos. This means that Latinos in our communities make $25,674 less per year and the African American communities make $21,060 less per year than that of the white communities. The economic and racial gap is further widened by the percentage of uninsured Houstonians when it is broken down by ethnicity. According to that same community survey, of the uninsured in Harris County, 41 percent identified as Latino, compared to the 23 percent of uninsured White Houstonians that are struggling to remain healthy in our prosperous economy.* Ethnic diversity will only take us so far. We cannot fully actualize our city’s wealth in diversity until we begin the process of also discussing why such staggering inequalities exist among the majority of Houstonians. While our diversity is just one of the ways in which Houston is a “world class city,” the opportunities to grow within and beyond our city walls seem to be limited by the color of one’s skin.
While it is important to highlight our city’s success, what also seems to be missing from the public dialog are all the other areas in which we lead the nation and the state. Texas has the highest rate of uninsured residents and the second highest percentage of uninsured children in the country. In 2009, 19.5 percent of Houston children had no access to any form of healthcare. Texas is ranked third in the percentage of a population that experiences food insecurity. In Harris County, 25.5 percent of children currently live in food insecure households. Texas ranks forty-ninth for education spending — we spend $3,000 less per student than the national average. In 2011, nearly 52 percent of Houston children were identified as being at risk of dropping out. Texas is tied for seventh in the percentage of children living in poverty and also seventh for income inequality between the rich and the poor. In Houston, 27 percent of our children live below the federal poverty line — which is higher than the state and national average. Currently, 452,000 Texas residents make at or below minimum wage, which is just one more way we get to claim that we are number one. Of those 452,000 workers making $7.25 or less an hour, 63 percent are women. The statistical analysis of our current reality and future is quite bleak for many Houstonians and Texans. If we are going to be used as a blueprint for the future, then we have to address the stark differences between what should be considered success and what is pure failure.
In Houston, over 20 percent of our workforce is trapped in low-wage occupations — a significantly higher percentage than Chicago’s 12 percent or New York’s 10 percent. Even in Detroit, where cost of living is lower than that of Houston’s, only 10 percent of their workforce makes minimum wage. In the Houston metropolitan area, 35 percent, nearly 900,000 people, make less than $20,000 a year. Many economic experts, along with state and local politicians, claim that Houston has mostly evaded the recession. That statement might be true in certain ways, but it doesn’t mean anything to the nearly 50 percent of single mothers living in poverty or the 64 percent of Houstonians who live in zip codes where the poverty rate is higher than that of the national average. According to the Houston Food Bank, more than 400,000 children living in Houston were fed by a local food pantry in 2011 — an 85 percent increase over the last four years. Our staggering poverty rates are really put into perspective when you think about the 23 Fortune 500 Companies that call Houston home. Our city is home to over 100,000 millionaires and was even named America’s #1 “Millionaire City” by Forbes Magazine. Houston’s economy is doing so well, in fact, that we experienced the highest income growth rate of any U.S. city and the second highest in the world between 2010 and 2011. The extreme disconnect between these two worlds seems to only get worse as our economy gets “better.”
Annishia Anderson, a Bush Intercontinental Airport passenger assistant for service contractor Huntleigh USA, is one of the many Houstonians struggling to thrive in our flourishing economy. Annishia is responsible for escorting elderly or disabled passengers to their flights safely – a responsibility she enjoys because of her love for people. It is a position Annishia takes quite seriously because she understands the importance of making sure passengers arrive safely to their destination. Despite working full time, Annishia and her fellow workers are forced to survive on less than $13,000 a year — an income that is far below the national poverty cutoff of $22,350 for a family of four. By contrast, the Economic Policy Institute’s family budget calculator estimates the basic cost of living for a family of four in the Houston area to be $63,600 annually.
Over the last five years of employment at the airport, Annishia has never once received a raise. “After I pay my rent, electricity, and phone bills, I am normally only left with about $50 out of each paycheck,” Annishia explains. This is a common problem that low-wage workers face every month. Describing how she utilizes what little money she has remaining out of each check, Annishia emphasizes, “I only get to buy groceries once a month if I’m lucky.” Like so many other Houstonians struggling to survive, food security is just one of the weekly hardships low-wage workers face. Even in the Houston heat, Annishia rarely runs her air conditioner and relies mostly on fans to keep her “cool” because she just can’t afford the added expenditure in the summer. Annishia explains how she often has to rely on her parents or credit cards when there is an unforeseen emergency. Recently, she was forced to foot a $3,000 medical bill with a credit card and now is finding it difficult to pay off because of her low wages. “It’s just not sustainable, but what choice do I have?” Annishia says. “My coworkers and I work extremely hard for very little money and no one seems to notice or care that we don’t even have access to the basic necessities.” The low wages Annishia is paid compounded by the grinding labor has taken its toll on her health. Many years back, she began gaining weight and was eventually diagnosed with a thyroid condition but is currently unable to access treatment because she cannot afford a doctor’s visit or the proper medication. Her medical condition could be easy to monitor if only she had access to any form of healthcare. Annishia is part of the 25 percent of Houstonians who are uninsured, the highest percentage out of any city in our state. With no access to healthcare, paid sick days or a living wage, Annishia, like so many other workers, finds herself in an endless cycle of poverty fueled by inescapable debt
In late June, Annishia was invited to speak at a minimum wage hearing at the White House. The event was held to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the passage of the Fair Labor Standards Act, a law signed by President Franklin Roosevelt that established our national minimum wage. The FLSA also ended child labor and created paid overtime for workers. Annishia, along with other workers from all over the country, came to the Capitol to express the economic hardships they face as Americans living off of $7.25 or less an hour. Annishia stood on a stage next to Joe Biden while he proclaimed, “A minimum wage increase ripples all through the economy benefiting the country as a whole as those workers spend their additional income on necessities such as food and utility bills.” President Obama recently proposed a minimum wage increase to $9 an hour by 2015. “Corporate profits have skyrocketed to all-time highs — but for more than a decade, wages and incomes have barely budged … Let’s declare that in the wealthiest nation on Earth, no one who works full-time should have to live in poverty,” Obama stated during his 2013 State of the Union address. A sentiment echoed by Annishia and every other Houstonian, Texan, and American who feels and sees the effects of low-wage jobs in their communities. When asked about what it was like to visit the Capitol, Annishia expressed that “it’s good to see our leaders discussing this issue and I am grateful I was invited to the White House but, at the end of the day, I would like to see less talking and more acting not just from our national leaders but our local leaders, too.”
Annishia’s story not only highlights the problem of poverty jobs at our airports, but also another systemic issue no one seems to want to address. The same airport that refuses to pay their workers a living wage also happens to generate $27.5 billion a year through the Houston economy. With this in mind, Annishia has begun to form a union with her coworkers in an attempt to ensure airport employees not only receive a living wage and access to benefits, but also have proper training on emergency preparedness and safety. Annishia and other workers from service contractors Huntleigh, Air Serv, and Menzies operating at Bush Airport would like to be given a chance to lobby, the same right that corporations are granted in our society, for what is in their best interest. However, instead of advocating for extra millions and billions, the workers just want enough for their families to have access to basic needs. Elsa Caballero, property service director for SEIU Texas, is working with Annishia and her coworkers in an attempt to help them organize for better living standards. “Under the slogans and the PR, there’s a real problem brewing under the surface in Houston,” Caballero says. “The middle class in Houston isn’t feeling this so-called boom; their reality is a paycheck-to-paycheck reality. You see this in Houston’s airports, where poverty persists under the shiny surface. Texans have less access to affordable healthcare than all other Americans and the worst high school graduation rate in the nation. The shocking lack of real investment in the lives of working class Texans threatens our state’s economic security.”
If Houston is the city of the future then we need to begin the process of bridging the gap between the rich and the poor. Our city leaders tout the Houston economy at every turn but rarely do we hear a peep from them about the workers who hold this city up on their overworked and underpaid backs. The same workers who watch corporate profit margins continuously rise and yet never see their own paychecks or communities prosper from these extravagant gains. Both elected officials and companies must be held accountable for allowing the workers in our communities to live in poverty. One highly effective solution would be for Houston to join the other 125 municipalities who currently have living wage laws on the books. These laws establish wage standards for companies who want to operate within our city limits. Enacting such laws on a local level gives the city a practical way to ensure that quality jobs are generated for all Houstonians and incentivizes employers to provide benefits such as healthcare. The easiest way to do this might be through a community partnership agreement specifically designed for businesses that receive contracts or subsidies from our state and local governments.
Many corporations are already taking advantage of these subsidies but our elected officials aren’t asking for anything in return. Recently, The New York Times released a series examining business incentives and their impact on jobs and local economies. Turns out, we aren’t just striving to be number one in poverty but also in the amount of taxpayer-funded corporate welfare that gets handed out every year. Texas shells out at least $19.1 billion a year in subsidies to multibillion-dollar corporations just to say thank you for operating in Texas. This breaks down to $759 per capita annually or 51 cents of every dollar of our state budget.
So while many Texans are forced to live without access to the most basic human needs, elected officials are investing our tax dollars back into the profit margins of the same companies that refuse to pay our workers a living wage. A quick scan of the data compiled by The New York Times yielded nearly $254 million in subsidies being utilized by Houston businesses. Just this week it was announced that Chevron will receive $12 million in public funds to help with their expansion in Houston. It’s time that our collective community stands in solidarity and holds our local and state officials, as well as corporations, accountable for the gross inequality they have created and perpetuate in our communities. We can’t continue to allow them to operate without demanding that they invest not just in their futures but ours as well. These subsidies can and should be used as a bargaining chip to demand employers provide living wages and benefits for all Houstonians – not just a select few.
*Editor’s Note: The statistics regarding uninsured individuals living in Harris County have been updated from the print version to reflect the most recent numbers.