Point Austin: Pushed Out
Considering the reasons for Austin's African-American diaspora
UT-Austin's Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis has issued another report in its continuing research on Austin's declining African-American population. Assistant Professor Eric Tang and his co-author, Bisola Falola, have released a follow-up to Tang's 2014 report (with Chunhui Ren), "Outlier: The Case of Austin's Declining African-American Population." That study focused on the seeming anomaly that while Austin's population continued to explode (increasing 20.4% from 2000 to 2010), the city's African-American population had declined, not only in percentage terms but in absolute numbers.
The "Outlier" report offered speculation concerning the reasons for the black out-migration – housing costs, deficient schools, institutional discrimination – while noting that further research was necessary. The new study – "Those Who Left: Austin's Declining African American Population" examines the reasons more closely, primarily via 100 interviews with longtime African-American residents of Austin who have moved elsewhere (mostly since 1999, to Round Rock, Pflugerville, Del Valle, Bastrop, Elgin, and Manor) while maintaining their cultural connections to the city, primarily their home churches, which became the bases for the interviews.
Although the responses are somewhat mixed in detail, the primary reasons respondents gave for moving out of Austin (primarily Central East Austin) were overwhelmingly "unaffordable housing" (56%) and "the need for better schools" (24%). The report notes that from 2000-2010, most of those leaving the city were under 18 – supporting the notion that their parents were moving out at least in part to seek better schools. And a majority of the parents interviewed for the new study said they had indeed found better schools outside the city. Another 16% of the respondents said they had left because of "institutional discrimination" – feeling that African-Americans are "unwelcome" in Austin.
An interesting pattern in the research is that the respondents' level of satisfaction with their living situations outside of Austin seems to a degree dependent on whether they moved north (Pflugerville, Round Rock) or east (Del Valle, Manor, etc.). Those who moved north tend to be more satisfied with schools, access to health care, and to other amenities like parks and restaurants. Those who moved east suggest their access to those advantages has diminished outside the city. The report notes that Round Rock and Pflugerville are "economically developed cities with large tax bases," while areas to the east include "cities (some of them unincorporated) which contain residential areas that are economically marginalized and geographically isolated." (Since there is a fairly wide range of incomes among those interviewed for the report – as low as $12,000 and as high as $200,000, with an average of $59,000 – it seems probable that the success of relocation also depends on level of income.)
Also striking about the report's findings is that a majority of respondents, whether they moved north or east, said that they would return to Austin if they believed they could afford to do so. Even a majority of those who say they found better opportunities elsewhere would consider returning. The authors suggest that their subjects still feel "an ineluctable sense of rootedness to Austin, even when they are satisfied with their new environs. The sense of history, culture, and belonging that respondents feel for Austin neighborhoods in which they grew up and in which their families have lived for generations is irreplaceable."
Jumped or Pushed?
African-American Austinites are of course not alone in feeling their hometown has changed beyond recognition, and more particularly that the rising cost of living (especially of housing) has either made it impossible to settle here or else too tempting to cash out on the homestead in order to receive, as one respondent put it, "more for my money in Round Rock." (The report doesn't touch on transportation costs, which at least for those still employed in Austin are presumably considerable.)
An ambivalence runs throughout the report's findings: a sense that many respondents left Austin reluctantly – and indeed, a majority say they would (or "maybe" would) return if they could. The most sobering sentences are these: "A striking 45 percent of all respondents identified strongly with the statement 'I was pushed out of Austin.' Among those who moved east – where incomes are lower and poverty rates higher – that number increased to 54 percent. Among respondents who moved out specifically between 1999 and 2009, the percentage of those who feel pushed out rose to 57 percent." The combined sense of alienation and disappointment appears to be accelerating.
The authors refrain from suggesting specific solutions to what has become a region-wide problem – if we knew how to fix it, we'd have done so by now – although they do note that while their research focuses on African-American residents, it has implications for all of Austin. "African American outmigration serves as a bellwether for the rest of the Austin area," they write. "Any efforts to stem African American population losses will no doubt contribute to creating a more economically and socially equitable city." What happens to our neighbors is happening to us.