The Austin Chronicle

Notes on Kamp: Left Out

Austin's economic inequality is a crisis

By Amy Kamp, February 5, 2016, News

Maybe I just wasn't alive at the right time, or living here at the right time, but I don't remember the idealized Austin some people seem to miss so much. I remember there being less traffic. I also remember people who lived west of I-35 acting like the Austin east of the highway was another, more dangerous country. Trawl further back through Austin's history, you'll come upon the 1928 city plan that codified that east-west segregation. Even further, you'll come upon a Capitol built with the "free" labor of prisoners.

But just because I don't necessarily believe in Austin's golden age, that doesn't mean I'm not disturbed by what we've become.

Austin's increasing economic inequality is only making it harder for people who are already struggling to survive in the city. Of course, income inequality is a problem facing not only Austin, but Texas and the rest of the country. If you want a clear picture of how Texas in general rewards the wealthy while neglecting the rest of us, I highly recommend Workers Defense Project's newly published report, "The Failed Promise of the Texas Miracle." (See "Money for (Almost) Nothing," Feb. 5.) The report focuses on state and local incentive programs, but it also details the inequality that those programs have done mostly nothing to ameliorate.

In many ways, it's the same old story: The rich get richer. Texas has given out an estimated $1.76 billion per year in economic incentives since 2003. Although jobs have been created by companies that received the money, they're fewer than promised: Companies who received money from the state incentive program, the Texas Enterprise Fund, promised 66,094 jobs in exchange, but only 48,317 were verifiably created. And those jobs haven't prevented inequality from increasing. From 2009 to 2012, incomes of the wealthiest 1% of Texans (those making $423,099 or more per year) grew by 48%, while the incomes of the other 99% grew by 2%. During the same time, inflation grew by 7%. Over 4.8 million Texans currently live below the poverty line.

The report singles out Austin's economic incentives policy for praise, and it's true that Austin's incentives include labor standards and enforcement mechanisms (many of them fought for by WDP) that others in Texas lack. But at a time when Austin is making national news for being one of the country's most economically segregated cities, it's clear we're not doing enough.

It shouldn't take a death to remind us of how harsh this city can be toward its more vulnerable residents, but all too often, it does. On Jan. 22, Monica Loera was murdered outside her home. (See "Justice Down to the Pronoun," Feb. 5.) We don't currently know her killer's motivations, although it appears that he was a client of hers. Regardless of why she was murdered, there were a variety of factors that contributed to Loera doing sex work out of her home. As a trans woman of color with a criminal record, she was facing a trifecta of obstacles to finding employment. She deserved to have more options, even if, given them, she might have chosen the same path.

The discrimination that the formerly incarcerated and LGBT and racial minorities face can't be treated as a problem separate from income inequality. I don't believe, as some argue, that if we were to somehow solve the problem of poverty, racism or other forms of oppression would magically disappear as well. But I do believe that these problems reinforce one another, compounding the difficulties for people affected by them. In order to have any chance of a solution, we first have to be aware of the reality of the situation.

I'm grateful to my colleague Nina Hernandez for working to make sure that the Chronicle reported on Loera's life and death in a way that was respectful and accurate. I feel regret, however, that we're writing about her because she was murdered. I know (I've read the comments) that there are people who see what happened to Loera as her fault. They look at the details of her life and they believe they're reading about someone who's nothing like them. There are people who will read over the Workers Defense report and not care one bit about how many people are in poverty in this state, or don't have health insurance, or anything else. They'll believe those people are nothing like them. That's a dangerous mistake. There is no one among us who is ultimately invulnerable, although some of us have further to fall. Wouldn't it be nice to have a net to catch you if you do?

Copyright © 2020 Austin Chronicle Corporation. All rights reserved.