TMCnet News

City a paradox of poverty and prosperity: BEDC: Education, better jobs and wages linked
[October 21, 2007]

City a paradox of poverty and prosperity: BEDC: Education, better jobs and wages linked

(Brownsville Herald (Texas) (KRT) Via Thomson Dialog NewsEdge) Oct. 21--Sandra Zera would like nothing more than to remain in Brownsville, but without a viable job offer the chances of her staying seem unlikely.

The 22-year-old is a year away from completing her Master's in Business Administration at the University of Texas at Brownsville and Texas Southmost College's School of Business.

Last December she earned a bachelor's degree in government and immediately began sending resumes to local businesses and banks. It's mid-October and she's still waiting for a single response.

Now, Zera believes her only shot at finding the sort of work her education's prepared her for is by leaving behind her hometown, even though an April 2007 Forbes magazine report ranked Brownsville the 184th best city in the country in which to start a career or business.

"I really don't think there are many jobs down here for people with the degrees I have," she said. "The only available work is in customer service, but that's not what I'm looking for."

Zera is not alone.

According to Brownsville 2020, a community partnership between The Brownsville Herald, and the UTB-TSC Center for Civic Engagement, availability of jobs and sufficient wages is the third most pressing concern for respondents to a survey this spring. More than 3,300 residents helped rank the issue in the Top 5.

The median per capita income in Brownsville is $10,470, according to 2006 census data. The median family income is $27,296, just above the federal poverty level for a family of four, which is $26,650

Wages have increased in the city, according to the Texas Association of Counties who reported in 2005 that the average wage per job was $24,635, up from $21,278 in 2000.

This July, the federal minimum wage was raised to $5.85 an hour. It will increase to $6.55 in 2008 and $7.25 in 2009.

Still, more than 36 percent of local families are living below the federal poverty level, while greater than 40 percent of individuals are counted in the U.S. Census Bureau's poverty statistics, earning Brownsville the census' "poorest city" designation in August.

A report by the Center for Public Policy Priorities found that to pay for basic living costs a family with two parents and two children in Brownsville and Harlingen must earn a minimum of $29,982. A family in the McAllen and Edinburg area must earn $34,624.

The non-profit center that advocates for middle and low-income Texans advocates for working families studied 26 metropolitan areas in Texas and found that the "cheapest" place to live in Texas is here. It also found that about half of residents make less than the nearly $30,000 a year needed to make ends meet.

"There's a big gap between what people are earning and what it really costs to live," Frances Deviney, co-author of the study and a senior research associate with CPPP, told The Herald in August.

Just because it's cheaper to live in the Valley doesn't mean it's easier for those with low incomes, Deviney said. "When wages correspond to the cost of living, you're actually no better off."

The study assumed families would buy food in bulk, buy little meat and never eat out. Housing costs were figured based on the fair market rate of public housing, which is often less than what families pay for apartments. The authors also assumed families have health insurance on par with those of a state employee, which is often not the case.

The study did not figure that families might want to save for college, a home or retirement. It did not account for unforeseen expenses like a car accident or extra school supplies.

"When you're living hand to mouth, on a monthly basis, you're never going to have the opportunity to get ahead," Deviney said. "You're kind of on a hamster wheel."

Professors like Rafael Otero, chair of the UTB-TSC School of Business, said many of his former students have a hard time finding high-paying jobs outside that wheel.

"What many end up doing is starting out (working) in a bank," Otero said. "Eventually they realize that, compared to teachers, they earn very little."

After a couple years earning $10 an hour, many students trade their future in business for a teaching gig.

The Brownsville Independent School District is the city's largest employer with 7,030 employees, including nearly 3,200 teachers starting at about $38,000 a year.

The Brownsville Chamber of Commerce ranks BISD No. 1 among the city's "major employers," with UTB-TSC, Cameron County, Keppel AmFELs and Wal Mart rounding out the Top 5.

"The short of it is that there aren't enough quality jobs to hire our grads locally," Otero said. "So they either move outside the city or outside their field."

Notwithstanding the experience of Otero's students, resident concerns seem to run counter to recent statistics.

The Texas Workforce Commission reported 5.8 percent unemployment in September for the Brownsville-Harlingen metropolitan statistical area. The state's unemployment rate was 4.3 percent in September.

Despite claiming the second highest unemployment rate in Texas, just below McAllen's 6.2 percent for September, Brownsville is showing signs of prosperity.

The growth is evident. Retailers such as Kohl's and Conn's recently opened Brownsville locations. And earlier this week T-Mobile USA, Inc., which plans to hire 700 for its Brownsville call center.

T-Mobile's employees will earn between $9 and $13 an hour, but according to Joe Zavaletta Jr., Center for Civic Engagement director, the recent job growth is deceiving.

"Ten dollars an hour sounds good," said Zavaletta, also a business law professor at UTB-TSC. "But, if you are a single parent raising a family that's at or below poverty level."

Comparing Brownsville to McAllen is the closest apples to apples analysis in Rio Grande Valley, Zavaletta argued.

The Brownsville Economic Development Council and the McAllen Economic Development Council engage in economic development, including retail, by recruiting companies that create jobs and provide job training.

The results of their efforts speak for themselves, he wrote on the Brownsville 2020 blog.

"It seems McAllen is doing economic development a lot better than we are," he wrote "In our view the future of Brownsville is not call centers and maquiladoras, which are always in the process of being outsourced. If we don't begin to move in new directions, we will lose our best computer, engineering, and business students to other cities with high-wage, high-tech jobs."

Job creation, however, isn't likely to occur without first building the local talent pool, said Gilbert Salinas, director of marketing and communication at BEDC.

According to Salinas, Brownsville could indeed face tough times if better jobs aren't created, but that won't happen unless the level of education improves.

With quality of education sitting at No. 6 on the Brownsville 2020 survey, this might be a case of putting the cart before the horse.

"Businesses are looking for local talent and Brownsville's has been historically low," Salinas said. "We've come a long way since the '70s and '80s, but the talent still needs to improve."

Only 60 percent of the city's 177,112 residents are high school graduates. Of those, only 16.2 percent have completed a bachelor's degree, according to the most recent census figures.

Meanwhile, some of the city's largest employers struggle to fill vacant jobs.

Keppel AmFELS is among them, according to Gilbert Elizondo vice president of human resources for the shipbreaker and welding operation.

Elizondo said the company is in dire need of welders, ship fitters and engineers.

To attract local talent, the company has built partnerships with regional universities, including UTB-TSC.

"There is a direct correlation with the education level of the population and our job vacancies," he said. "It's a left hand-right hand situation."

Although Zera hasn't given up hope that something will pop up before she graduates, she expects to be living somewhere else next year.

"I don't want to leave, this is my home," she said. "In order for me to stay, I'd have to find a pretty high-level job."

Austin Bureau correspondent Elizabeth Pierson-Hernandez and Brownsville Herald city editor Chris Mahon contributed to this report.

To see more of The Brownsville Herald, or to subscribe to the newspaper, go to

Copyright (c) 2007, The Brownsville Herald, Texas
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
For reprints, email [email protected], call 800-374-7985 or 847-635-6550, send a fax to 847-635-6968, or write to The Permissions Group Inc., 1247 Milwaukee Ave., Suite 303, Glenview, IL 60025, USA.

[ Back To's Homepage ]