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KERA's One Crisis Away project focuses on North Texans living on the financial edge.

Why Low Unemployment In North Texas Doesn't Mean Families Are Financially Secure

Allison V. Smith for KERA News
Chris Crowley lives in Dallas County and makes $14 an hour loading and unloading merchandise for Home Depot distribution. He doesn't have a car so he commutes hours by train and bus each day to keep his job.

With a low unemployment rate and hot housing market, North Texas boasts of having one of the country’s strongest economies. But new research on Dallas County from the Communities Foundation of Texas and the Center for Public Policy Priorities paints a different picture.

In 1999, median household income in Dallas County — where 50 percent of residents make more and 50 percent make less — was nearly $62,000.

In 2015, it had dropped to just under $52,000.

“It was a stark decline that we weren’t even expecting when we did this analysis,” said Frances Deviney, chief operating officer at the Austin-based Center for Public Policy Priorities.

“That’s huge. In Texas, it was only 2 percent,” Deviney said. “We couldn’t believe the massive drop that was happening in Dallas County and what it meant for people’s opportunities.”

Interview Highlights: Frances Deviney

On the connection between low unemployment and slipping income

It’s really something that we’re seeing not just in Dallas County but across the country. What happened particularly in Texas is that after the Great Recession, we saw a great loss of good middle-wage jobs. You could have one job and pay for your family — put food on the table, put gas in the car, get the school supplies, everything you needed. It might not be a luxurious life, but you could have the basic needs. And the jobs that came back to fill those lost jobs were lower-paying jobs — jobs that maybe didn’t have health insurance, that didn’t pay the same wage. And so families were then having to work two jobs or have a side hustle.

On income disparity in Dallas County

There was a pretty big income decline for the people who made the least amount of money, and a big income increase for the people who made the most money. Old story, we’ve heard that before: “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” And that’s definitely the story in Dallas. What was surprising was when you compared it to Texas overall, even the lowest incomes over a 10-year period saw a little bit of an increase — bigger for the people who made more money, but they still saw an increase. Whereas in Dallas County, the bottom four-fifths of earners saw decreases and it was only that top fifth, that top 20 percent, that saw an increase.

On the many ways Dallas County is segregated

You have more opportunities — more people with higher education degrees, starting more businesses,  creating opportunities for their kids because they have more resources — kind of being clustered in north-central Dallas County. Whereas when you spread across the county, you’re not seeing that same level of academic engagement, academic completion, jobs that pay higher income amount. And that maps onto the racial/ethnic segregation in the city as well.

What many people don’t realize is that the racial/ethnic segregation that happens in many American cities, Dallas included, happened by choice. It happened because of policy decisions that were made often — 100, 200 years ago, maybe 50 years ago — about where people were allowed to build a house, buy a house, get a loan or get a loan to buy a house in a certain area. And often that was predicted by a person’s race or ethnicity.

Now, even though we have laws against that today, the ramifications of those decisions are being felt even 50 years, 100 years later. We see that in the wealth that’s being passed down from generation to generation. Were you able to buy a house? Did that house appreciate in value? Could you leave that to your children when you passed away? Could you leverage it to send your kid to college? And those things build on each other over time, so that again, you go back to this idea of “rich getting richer, poor getting poorer.” 

Interview responses have been lightly edited for clarity and length. 

Learn more

KERA has been exploring life on the financial edge since 2013 in our One Crisis Away project. This summer, we're revisiting families we've met in the last five years in our series, "Still On The Edge."

The Communities Foundation of Texas is a financial supporter of KERA.

Courtney Collins has been working as a broadcast journalist since graduating from the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2004. Before coming to KERA in 2011, Courtney worked as a reporter for NPR member station WAMU in Washington D.C. While there she covered daily news and reported for the station’s weekly news magazine, Metro Connection.