City Hall

Dallas Faces Massive Uphill Climb to Reduce Poverty

A little more than four years ago, in February 2014, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings launched the Mayor's Task Force on Poverty, telling a United Way lunch crowd that he'd been preaching too much and doing to little to change the economic inequality in the city he's led since 2011.

On Monday, that task force issued its latest reports, and while Dallas has seen significant changes in its priorities since Rawlings decided to attack the issue, poverty remains as intractable in the city as ever. It was clear, however, that some of the city's newest leaders are thinking about the issue in more progressive ways.

According to the task force, Dallas continues to lag behind other cities in North Texas and around the United States when it comes to income level. Almost 23 percent of Dallas residents have incomes below the federal poverty level — $24,300 for a family of four in 2016, the latest year for which comprehensive data is available — a higher number than in Houston, San Antonio, Fort Worth and Austin. Dallas has the second-highest child-poverty level in the United States, with 35.6 percent of kids in the city living below the poverty line.

One of the reasons Dallas' numbers are worse, according to Theresa O'Donnell, the city's chief resiliency officer and a member of the task force, is because the city has essentially lost its middle class over the last couple of decades. While other cities like San Antonio and Houston have annexed communities on their borders, Dallas is ringed by independent suburbs that attract North Texans who would otherwise be the buffer between the city's working poor and its wealthy.

"We house the region's working poor because there's not affordable housing opportunities for people in the northern suburbs," O'Donnell said. "Our middle class has fled to the suburbs. If they're white or Asian, they go north. If they're Hispanic or African-American, they go south [to suburbs like] Cedar Hill or Mansfield."

Dallas City Council member Mark Clayton, who represents portions of east and northeast Dallas, said the city is at least partially responsible for keeping a portion of Dallas poor because it pays a minimum wage of only $11.15 an hour to its employees.

"Even as a city," Clayton said, "we contribute to that just as much as anybody. We're contributing to the fact that we're making our own folks live in abject poverty."

"It's racism. That's what it is, it's racism. We've got to start talking about that and mentioning it and saying it. This is systemic racism." — Omar Narvaez

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Although the city already pays almost $4 per hour more than the federally mandated minimum wage, Clayton wants Dallas to pay more. His council colleague, Omar Narvaez, suggested a different route. In order to get city cash for relocating, he said, corporations moving to Dallas should have to pay each of their workers a living wage.

"We should have a living wage requirement when we give incentives for corporations to come [to Dallas]," Narvaez said. "Eleven bucks an hour ain't money anymore."

To create a city that treats all of its residents equitably, Narvaez said, Dallas needs to deal with the root causes of poverty, rather than merely fighting its symptoms. 

"It's racism. That's what it is, it's racism. We've got to start talking about that and mentioning it and saying it. This is systemic racism that was created well before any of our times. We didn't create the system, but we have the opportunity to change it," Narvaez said.

The city, he suggested, could focus on one or two neighborhoods, attacking systemic issues, such as lack of access to education or efficient transportation, that remain after years of neglect and redlining.

"What I'd like to see when you guys come back is to give us something really concrete to focus on," Narvaez told task force chairwoman Regina Montoya. "We're not going to solve poverty overnight, but we can focus on one thing."
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young