COVID-19 and its Disproportionate Impact on San Antonio
Urban studies professor lays out strategies for addressing inequalities in SA
Thursday, May 14, 2020
a flower garden in san antonio
Christine Drennon, PhD headshot

We have been aware of the inequalities in our city for a very long time. The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Pew Research Center have published reports about segregation, inequality, and poverty in San Antonio. We top many of the national lists.  And we’ve responded with task forces, radio call-in shows, and lots of editorials, but the statistics have not changed. What The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Pew Research Center were unable to do, maybe COVID-19 can: incite us to address our longstanding inequalities in a truly meaningful and revolutionary way.  

In the past month, our local headlines in the San Antonio Express-News have included “Virus Proves Fatal at SA Nursing Home”; Food Lines Are So Long It Just Breaks Your Heart,” and “Schools Hunt Missing Students” (with 19 percent of SAISD students not in touch with their instructors and 2 percent of NEISD students in the same situation). What we need to realize is that these two sets of headlines (those of the NYTWSJ, and SAEN) are related: social inequality exacerbates the impact of a pandemic like this one and disproportionately impacts low-income communities of color. Not only are low-income communities of color reporting higher infection rates, so too are their daily lives impacted disproportionately. Yes, all of us have been impacted in numerous ways: retirement accounts have taken a hit, investment portfolios have dwindled, vacations have been cancelled or postponed. But in too many of our neighborhoods, families are struggling to feed their children, and children lack the resources they need to continue to learn.  Our inequality has exacerbated that impact.

While we work to get through this pandemic today, we must also begin to prepare for the next one. To some, that means stockpiling medical equipment and toiletries, but to our city it must mean addressing the inequalities we are so aware of, so we are a more resilient and robust city.  How? We’ve been having these conversations for years, so the ideas have been developed–we just need to implement them. We need to think in terms of short-, medium-, and long-term strategies. 

Short-Term

Let’s pass our universal PreK program, PreK4SA, and extend it to all who qualify. Let’s support our paid sick leave ordinance, so when workers get sick they don’t need to continue going to work and infect others.   

Medium-Term

Let’s adopt a citywide living wage so our families, no matter their occupation, make enough money to fulfill their daily needs and save a bit for an emergency. If we do this, it takes some of the burden off of our social service agencies and ultimately pays for itself. Then, let’s extend the Alamo Promise to include anyone who qualifies economically, knowing that education–if delivered equitably–is truly an equalizer. Let’s have a serious conversation about gentrification, displacement, and affordable housing, recognizing that our most historic neighborhoods are being commodified as investments rather than lived in as homes. Let’s recognize and respect the cultural heritage that resides in those neighborhoods and cherish it as a community resource not to be sold to the highest bidder.

Long-Term

Let’s begin to think of our city and govern it for those who live here–not only for those who are coming. Let’s get out of the growth mindset and concentrate on the population already here that made this city the great city it already is. Continue to welcome new people, but concentrate resources on those already here, rather than attracting those who are not.   

This all sounds fine, yet it’s also expensive. But inequality is a two-way street: inequality means there is disparity between those who have and those who do not. And somehow we need to even that out to reduce our inequality and make our communities and our city more resilient. Redistribution need not be a bad word. We’ve redistributed wealth for a very long time; the poor have subsidized the wealthy for decades (if not centuries). Low wages, the lack of paid sick leave, low-interest mortgages, and mortgage interest tax deductions have kept prices low for some, allowing them to accumulate wealth. We can begin to imagine redistribution in the other direction: a bit more in community college tax rates could extend the Alamo Promise to thousands. A sliver more of our sales tax keeps little ones in pre-K and on track for elementary school. Redirection of subsidies and incentive packages from new development projects into the old neighborhoods may allow families to stay and alleviate displacement, especially during a crisis.  

Maybe COVID-19 will finally force us to have the really difficult conversations we’ve been avoiding and tackle the issues that plague us–inequality, segregation, and poverty.  Let’s see this as an opportunity not to use the best practices of others, but to create our own and become a leader.

Christine Drennon, Ph.D., is the director of the urban studies program at Trinity University. Her research delves into the historic inequities between San Antonio's neighborhoods that are reflected in our life chances.

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