Hispanic study tries to paint bigger picture against the backdrop of a changing city.
By Juan Castillo
Sunday, April 19, 2009
Four years ago, the City of Austin launched a study into the quality of life of its African American residents — an exploration that rose from the ashes of a fire at the Midtown Live nightclub.
Midtown Live wasn't just any club. It was wildly popular with African Americans, and as the blaze consumed the building on a February night in 2005, some Austin police officers and dispatchers exchanged insensitive remarks such as "burn, baby, burn." In the resulting fallout, then-City Manager Toby Futrell talked about the city's need "to fix the leak in our soul."
No such crisis in race relations led to the city's newest and current quality-of-life study focusing on Hispanics, a booming population responsible for an overwhelming share of Austin's growth this decade. But city officials say it is a crisis all the same — one driven by the urgent educational, economic and social challenges that confront an expanding Hispanic underclass, and threaten to cause problems for all Austinites in the future.
"We risk collapsing the entire system due to, if nothing else, the sheer enormity of this piece of our overall community," city demographer Ryan Robinson said in a February report to the City Council.
Though the African American and Hispanic quality-of-life studies had different catalysts, they share important similarities. Like the African American study, the Hispanic initiative addresses transformative shifts in the city's demographic and cultural landscape, and seeks to measure how one racial or ethnic group is faring in comparison with the rest of Austin and with peer populations in selected cities across the country.
And like its predecessor, the Hispanic study prompts a fundamental question: What, if anything, can or should —the city do to improve the quality of life of residents from one racial or ethnic group?
Not much, say opponents, who mostly protest in cyberspace and contend that the city should focus instead on improving the quality of life for all. One anonymous online poster recently asked: "Can someone tell me when the White Quality of Life Initiative will be held?"
City Council Member Mike Martinez says such comments imply that the council does not have the interests of all residents in mind.
"That's simply not true. A rising tide lifts all boats, so when we help the least of us, regardless of ethnicity or gender, we help all of us," said Martinez, who sponsored May's council resolution authorizing the quality-of-life study.
Latinos are the biggest and fastest-growing minority population in the city, the state and the country. In Austin, they conservatively make up 36 percent of the city population and are projected to account for 70 percent to 80 percent of total city growth this decade.
Austin was once overwhelmingly white but by 2020, Anglo and Hispanic shares of the population will be almost identical, Robinson said.
In some respects, Latinos are flourishing here; their numbers are swelling in the professional ranks and the middle class, as Robinson's report notes. But the report, based on census data, also cites indicators of troubling trends. Among them:
The educational gap for Hispanics in Austin, when compared with Anglos, is the second-largest among 29 U.S. cities.
That gap has implications for the Central Texas work force. The Latino population is considerably younger than the Anglo population, and those poorly educated workers will become a significant component of the work force as Anglos retire.
The median family income for Austin Hispanics is less than half that of Anglos.
The poverty rate for Hispanics in 2007 — 23.1 percent — was the second-highest in the city, behind African Americans at 31.9 percent.
The 7.5 percent unemployment rate for Hispanics (in 2006) also was second-highest, behind African Americans at 9 percent.
With those trends, it makes economic sense for government to identify and strengthen the institutions and populations that are at risk and need the most help, said University of Texas professor Jacqueline Angel.
"It's important to understand why (Hispanics in Austin are) lagging so far behind in terms of earning wages, (and why) their whole sort of socioeconomic profile is highly vulnerable," said Angel, an expert on public and social policy and Hispanic health. "This increasing Hispanic population is going to grow, and this younger strata of workers will be disproportionately responsible for the welfare of all adults."
Austin might bea national leader in examining how its Latino residents are faring, said Paul Saldaña, a consultant who is coordinating the public forums for the study. He has not found evidence of similar initiatives elsewhere in the country.
"There's an assumption by some that because of the numbers of the Hispanic population here, there's no need for a quality-of-life study. That's not true," said Saldaña, adding that Latinos in Austin "have been having this conversation about the need for one for some time."
Emilio Zamora, an expert on Mexican American history and a professor at the University of Texas, said the African American and Hispanic life studies are important acknowledgments that the city historically might not have effectively represented all residents.
"We ought to talk to all communities," Zamora said. "And I think the Mexican American community, which is the largest minority community in town and will become the majority community in the city — in the whole area — needs and deserves attention not only because of its growing size but because of its marginalization in the past."
"Both (initiatives) are based on need," said Assistant City Manager Michael McDonald, who was the city's point man during the African American Quality of Life Initiative.
And in both, common themes emerged: African American and Latino residents said they simply wanted equal opportunities. In some instances, they conceded, too, that they could do more to shape their own better futures.
That was the case this month at the Hispanic forum on the cultural arts at the Mexican American Cultural Center. At one lively session in an airy art gallery, about 30 participants brainstormed on how the city could do more to recognize and promote the contributions of Latino artists and their impact on Austin's culture and heritage; to increase their participation at major arts festivals; and to provide equal access to services and to cultural arts funding.
But a few also noted that in recent city elections, Hispanic residents have not turned out in numbers befitting their growing share of the city population, and that Latino leadership development, volunteerism and civic engagement are not what they could be.
"We need to go to the schools, and not just when it's convenient," said Alonzo Reyes, a lieutenant with the Travis County Constable's Office in Precinct 3. "Where are the mentors? Where are the volunteers in education who can set an example?"
But at the first public forum in February, on education, another spirited session had parents and others complaining that the city is not doing enough to keep Hispanic students in school. Some said city officials should hold the school district accountable for underperforming schools in Austin.
In many respects, the forums have reflected the breadth and diversity of the city's Hispanic population and of the topics they've addressed — education, business development, the arts, leadership and advocacy, preserving history and well more than a half-dozen other subjects — proving again that the population is hardly monolithic and that any attempts to improve quality of life will have to be multifaceted.
At the time of the Midtown Live fire, the black share of Austin's populationhad fallen notably since 1960, and many African Americans were struggling to keep up with other Austin residents in terms of income, education, homeownership and business ownership. Someblack residents said they didn't always feel welcome in Austin, a city highly regarded by others as a great place to live.
At the same time, critics were telling McDonald that the civil rights struggle had repaired America's race problems, thus making the reason for the quality-of-life study moot. The notion of a postracial era got under his skin a little, McDonald, who is African American, recalled in a 2006 interview.
Though progress had been made, he said, "it's not an indication that things have arrived." He and Futrell said the fruits of the civil rights movement would not have been possible had government not intervened.
Opponents of the study questioned whether city government should enact policies singling out one racial or ethnic group for help. But supporters said it was race-based policies — such as the 1928 city master plan that sought to direct blacks into a segregated community east of downtown and to promote industrial development there — that created some of the lingering problems affecting African Americans. The implication was that government bore at least some responsibility to help correct them.
City officials have emphasized, too, that the initiatives, particularly the public forums, can identify ways in which other institutions — businesses, the school district and the county, for example — can get involved.
The two-year African American Quality of Life Initiative produced 56 recommendations, which the city says it has implemented, though not all are complete. It says it spent about $730,000 from the 2006 city budget on the initiative.
McDonald emphasized that the recommendations benefit all residents, as in the case of city down-payment assistance for homebuyers and sensitivity training for police officers. "That is not just for African American issues; it's across the board," McDonald said recently.
Some critics of both the African American and Hispanic quality-of-life studies charge that the problems of blacks and Latinos are their own doing.
But finding fault is not the point, Angel said. "The real question is how are we going to improve upon what we already have in terms of city services and the quality of life here in Austin." The answers, Angel said, lie in having a strong labor market and an educated population.
"What we all share in this issue is that if we don't have a vibrant economy, we will all suffer," Angel said.
What happens next
A series of public forums — the first phase of the city's Hispanic Quality of Life Initiative — continues April 28 with a look at health issues.
The event is from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Rosewood-Zaragosa Neighborhood Center, 2808 Webberville Road.
Previous forums focused on education, economic and business development, and cultural arts.
According to the city, the Hispanic Quality of Life Initiative seeks to address the following questions:
Is the quality of life for Hispanics in Austin markedly different from the quality of life experienced by Hispanics in other cities?
Is the quality of life experienced by Hispanics significantly different from the quality of life experienced by the rest of Austin and other demographic groups?
Is the City of Austin providing program services, financial assistance and other opportunities to enhance the quality of life for Hispanics?
Comments from the forums and community surveys will help shape recommendations on how to make Austin a better place to live for Latinos. A report will be presented to the City Council, tentatively scheduled for June.
Next, a community oversight team will review the report and hold at least one more public forum before presenting a revised document to the council. City staff will create a final report and action plan to present to the council by year's end.