More times than I can count, people have stopped me in the middle of talking about Folo Media to tell me I am wrong about the scope of inequality in San Antonio — “Detroit is so much worse than here.” Or they’ll say it doesn’t really matter — “There is always going to be rich and poor, that’s just how things work.”
The dubiousness is easy to understand: Our brand of inequality is easy to miss, because our neighborhoods are so rigorously segregated by economics. Inequality is out of sight, out of mind.
But it is plainly visible in other countries, including Nicaragua, which happens to have the practically the same Gini Coefficient — a statistical measurement of inequality, based on income distribution in an area — as San Antonio.
At the beginning of the year, I spent two weeks in Nicaragua shortly before I joined Folo Media as part of a journalism study abroad program. I had no idea that my visit to the least-developed country in Central America would be a preview of reporting on San Antonio.
The main street leaving the airport in Managua, the capital, is lined with crumbling storefronts and homes with barred windows or caved-in roofs. Above them, billboards advertise Porsches and Rolexes.
In the villages where the other students and I worked, people woke with the sun to pick fruit from rolling pineapple plants tucked in the mountains. Some would load rickety trucks and carts with their produce, while others would pack it in bags and baskets for their families to carry to the market. They would sell their produce all day and come home with barely enough money to scrape together food for the week. Those families were the lucky ones. Single moms, the elderly and the sick had to find other means to survive.
At night, we would go to luxury restaurants because we knew the food was prepared safely. We were doing what we had to avoid getting sick, but I knew the people we worked with during the day would never have the luxury of these meals.
Some of the poorest people in Nicaragua live off $1-$2 USD per day. We were dropping $15-$20 per meal.
For these two weeks, it was like we were the wealthy half of the inequality spectrum – although, the true wealthy population lives in houses on private islands with expensive boats attached to their docks.
Everyone I worked with, from the locals in the village to the Nicaraguans that assisted us during the trip to the other Americans I was with, understood where the people we helped during the day stood on the inequality spectrum. They also understood that these people would never be able to improve their situation without help. They had gotten stuck on the bottom half of a ladder, and the path up was blocked by obstacles they could not navigate alone.
Here’s an example of something you can only understand when you get close to the problem: Many poor Nicaraguans suffer from chronic illnesses that prevent them from working better-paying jobs or more hours. And they can’t afford to take the day off to visit a free health clinic – the journey into the city is long without a car, and the lines wrap around outside the clinic until the sun goes down.
Another: Girls are pulled out of school at an early age to help their mothers care for their siblings – there is a high birth rate among women in these villages. By the time the young women are able to have children, they have long forgotten about their educational goals. Instead, their day-to-day life becomes raising children, cooking and cleaning – and that is how it will stay for most of them.
What this means for San Antonio
In San Antonio, we are not as far removed from Nicaragua as we may think. The picture that I painted above could easily be altered to show San Antonio. In Nicaragua, long lines and transportation are two of the key issues stopping the impoverished from getting adequate health care, but they have government funded health insurance. Here, about 1 in 5 Bexar County residents lack health insurance. Many people cannot not pay out of pocket to go to the doctor, nor can they take off work. Preventative health care is often not utilized by low income residents in either Nicaragua or San Antonio. There are other issues such as obesity, diabetes, low health literacy, and teen pregnancy that both places grapple with.
On the Friday that Hurricane Harvey hit the Texas shore, I left work early, loaded my car up with supplies and turned on the weather station. I was worried, but I had a sense of security: If my apartment flooded, I would be able to pay for the insurance deductible. If my car flooded, I could afford to find a replacement.
That afternoon, I walked around part of the West Side. I spoke to people with leaky roofs and beat up cars, people for whom the storm could represent a serious disaster. They couldn’t afford to stock up or fix the holes in their roof. They couldn’t pay to rebuild, and they couldn’t afford a new car if it flooded.
If San Antonio had been hit with some catastrophic, natural disaster, the lower income population would have been the hardest hit, just like in Houston with Harvey and just like in New Orleans with Katrina.
Day in and day out, there is a population that is barely making it. They are one crisis – one bit of bad luck – from not making it at all.
My memories of Nicaragua merge with my weekly experiences in San Antonio. If you want to grasp what’s happening in the most vulnerable parts of this city, just think of whatever portrait of poverty is most familiar to you — chances are, that reality is not too distant from what’s happening in thousands of households in your hometown.