Census figures show incomes rising, poverty shrinking in Austin area

Lazaro Castro worked as a supervisor at various commercial cleaning companies before launching his own startup, a mobile, waterless car wash company, last year. Now Castro, 25, employs four other people in a thriving business — something he doesn’t think he could have done four or five years ago in the aftermath of the recession.

“In 2008, end of 2007, when the recession was bad, there was no work, and even if you wanted work, there wasn’t (any),” said Castro, who lives in Cedar Park. “But now it’s improved.”

That financial improvement is reflected across Central Texas in the census data released Thursday, which shows household incomes are on the rise and the share of people in poverty is shrinking.

The trend holds true not only in Austin and Travis County, but also in Williamson, Hays and Bastrop counties. And it dovetails with the national census figures announced Tuesday, in which the median U.S. household’s income rose 5.2 percent in 2015 to $56,516, the largest one-year gain stretching back to 1967.

MORE CENSUS COVERAGE: Austin metro area surpasses 2 million residents

Austin’s median family income of $76,600 changed little since 2014 but has risen from $63,600 in 2011. Since 2011, the median family incomes in Austin and Travis County have increased faster than those for the state and the nation.

At the same time, about 14.5 percent of Austinites lived below the poverty level in 2015. That compares with about 20.3 percent in 2011. Nationwide, about 14.7 percent were living below the poverty level in 2015, down from 15.9 percent in 2011.

Among the surrounding counties, Bastrop County had the sharpest increase in median household income from 2014 to 2015, rising more than 12 percent to $75,000. Williamson County’s median family income rose more than 4 percent to about $89,000.

Gains in median family income were also present across racial and ethnic groups but were largest among Asian families. The median family income for Asian families in Travis County rose by more than 30 percent between 2011 and 2015 to around $105,000.

READ MORE: Asian-American business boom in Austin mirrors fast-growing community

Austin’s city demographer, Ryan Robinson, cautioned that what at first glance might seem like a story of economic empowerment could be, rather, an illustration of displacement. As rising housing costs have made Austin less affordable, some residents have moved to neighboring counties, pushing poverty to the suburbs.

“That’s really, really surprising,” Robinson said of the data, though he noted he hadn’t yet been able to review it. “(Austin) was just as economically vibrant. … Both (2014 and 2015) were full-on, full throttle, so the only, to me, explanatory variable is we continue to displace our poorest.”

Looking at the 2015 American Community Survey data released Thursday, though, it is difficult to determine whether poorer people are seeing better wages or simply moving to other areas.

READ MORE: Leaders grapple with poverty at Williamson County summit

Experts cited various causes for the increase in national household income, including a growing availability of jobs for people who might have been without work in recent years. Some companies such as Wal-Mart, the Gap and the owners of T.J. Maxx, have announced pay increases in the past two years. And others, like Castro, found a healthier economy made a receptive environment for their own venture.

Until six months ago, Erika Martinez, 42, of Manor was working as a nanny. But the current economic climate was encouraging enough for her to create a company that prints brochures and other paperwork, she said.

Put simply, “I have more clients, I have more work, I have more money,” Martinez said.

At the national level, income for the poorest 10 percent of households jumped 7.9 percent last year, while for the wealthiest 10 percent of households income rose just 2.9 percent. That narrowed the gap between the two groups by the largest amount on record.

Tom Mendez, leader at Austin Interfaith, a nonpartisan coalition of congregations, schools and unions, echoed Robinson’s thoughts on the Central Texas figures. He said he suspected the change in median household income might be due to lower-income residents being priced out of Austin.

READ MORE: UT report: Rising costs, school woes push blacks to leave Austin

“It doesn’t ring true,” Mendez said. “That doesn’t feel like that’s the case, because we continue to see a lot of working-class people struggling to get by.” For instance, when the Austin Housing Authority allowed people to apply in 2014 for the waiting list for a needs-based housing voucher, more than 19,000 people applied.

Mendez highlighted the need for Austin to place attention on the issue of affordable housing and living wages.

“That sort of creates the illusion of success when we economically force the less fortunate to leave the city, rather than lifting them up and helping them create a better future,” he said.

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

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