Via: Dallas Business Journal
By: Bill Hethcock

Even after a recent promotion at her job with a major telecom raised Shamy Conley’s pay to $18 an hour, the 30-year-old single mother of three struggles to make ends meet.

“It’s tight,” she said in an interview in her East Dallas apartment. “I’m able to make sure we have a roof over our heads and food to eat, but I can’t do any more than that. I can’t do more than take care of the basic necessities.”

Conley is not alone.

At first glance, Dallas-Fort Worth seems like a land of opportunity and prosperity, with a booming housing market and new people, new companies and new jobs flowing in to buoy the economy.

But the rising tide is not lifting all boats.

The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in Dallas County at an alarming rate, even as the population booms.

Far too many students — specifically, minority students — are lost in Dallas County’s education pipeline.

Many go hungry. Some are homeless or live in housing conditions that the word “substandard” only begins to describe.

There’s a significant gap between the county’s black and Hispanic residents versus its white residents in terms of income, educational attainment and access to health insurance and jobs.

And while the unemployment rate is low, not all jobs in Dallas County come with an average paycheck that covers cost-of-living expenses.

Why should North Texas businesses care about issues such as poverty, education and income inequity? Housing, hunger and health? Wealth distribution and racial and ethnic inequality?

“Because corporations are just conglomerations of people, and people care about that,” said Mike Davis, economist and Business Strategy professor at Southern Methodist University’s Cox School of Business.

In addition to the kindness of their corporate hearts, businesses should care because the human condition in a community can dramatically affect companies’ bottom lines, Davis said. Poor educational systems cause shortages of workers with the skills and know-how that employers need.

“If employees aren’t properly educated, the value of the employees isn’t that great,” Davis said.

Societal problems of a region — things such as poverty, homelessness or education system shortcomings — also scare away new companies looking for a place to move or expand.

Amazon, for instance, is requesting information about test scores, STEM programs, educational attainment and the tech-worker pipeline from the metro areas vying for its $5 billion second headquarters and the 50,000 permanent, high-paying jobs that the company says the project will create. The e-commerce giant is also seeking data on housing stock, housing costs, transit and diversity and inclusion in its search for a home for what it calls HQ2.

The Dallas area is one of 20 finalists for the project.

Multiple underlying factors threaten the economic prosperity of Dallas County and the region’s biggest city, contributing to growing poverty and rising income inequality, according to a study released in April by Dallas-based philanthropic stalwart Communities Foundation of Texas.

Among those factors, Dallas has high levels of geographic segregation by race and ethnicity, income, educational attainment and wealth, according to the report conducted for the foundation by the Center for Public Policy Priorities.

That means that access to opportunity for low- to moderate-income Dallas County residents — and black and Hispanic residents who are disproportionately represented in that category — are highly affected by where they live, said Sarah Cotton Nelson, chief philanthropy officer for CFT.

Access to good jobs, quality schools, health care and safe neighborhoods are increasingly interrelated, making it increasingly difficult for people to overcome barriers to opportunity on their own, according to Frances Deviney, associate director of Center for Public Policy Priorities.

The data from the report show a connection between income and racial segregation in Dallas County. High-income homes are concentrated in north-central Dallas, a predominantly white area. Low-income homes are concentrated in neighborhoods with more black and Hispanic residents. There are 11 census tracks in Dallas County where more than half the residents live below the national poverty line, and most of those are south of downtown.

“The ZIP code that you live in is very often a predictor of your job outcomes and your health outcomes and education levels,” Deviney said.


Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has said fighting poverty in the city is one of his top priorities. In February 2014, he launched the Mayor’s Task Force on Poverty, with one of the goals being to force business leaders to think about the issue in more progressive ways.

Almost 23 percent of Dallas residents have incomes below the federal poverty level of $24,300 for a family of four, according to the task force. That’s more than in Houston, Austin or San Antonio. Dallas has one of the highest child-poverty levels in the nation, with 35.6 percent of kids in the city living below the poverty line.

One reason poverty in Dallas is so bad is because the city has lost most of its middle class over the last couple of decades, the Communities Foundation of Texas study shows.

In Dallas County, there is a widening gap between the bottom fifth and the top fifth of household income, according to the study. Dallas County bucks the statewide trend in which every quintile has experienced a rise in income, Deviney said.

Median incomes have declined over the past roughly 20 years statewide, and the decline has been much greater in Dallas County, after being adjusted for inflation, Deviney said. The median income in the county has fallen 16 percent since 1999, falling from $62,000 to $52,000, she said.

“We’ve had a big increase in some jobs, like service jobs, that are paying less,” she said. “We have low unemployment, so people are working, but we have more jobs that pay less money.”

In the Dallas area, a single parent with two children needs to earn $23 an hour to meet his or her family’s needs, according to a digital data tool from the Center for Public Policy Priorities ( The Dallas metro area’s median hourly wage is $22 an hour, meaning 47 percent of jobs do not pay a median wage large enough to meet this family’s needs.


More than 800,000 North Texans go hungry or are “food insecure,” meaning they don’t know where their next nutritious meal will come from, said Trisha Cunningham, CEO of the North Texas Food Bank.

The food bank provides about 70 million meals per year — 190,000 meals a day — to the organizations it works with. About 80 percent of the food from the organization goes to about 260 partner agencies over a 13-county area.

The food bank is building a 220,000-square-foot facility in Plano as part of a 10-year plan to transform how it distributes food. Its goal is to eliminate the gap between the 70 million meals it provides each year and the current demand for 92 million meals, Cunningham said.

Most of the people the food bank serves are the working poor, children and the elderly, Cunningham said.


About 70 percent of the 61,000 students in Arlington are economically disadvantaged, or living below the poverty line, said Marcelo Cavazos, superintendent of Arlington ISD. For many of those students, the meals they get at school are the only ones they’ll receive all day, and the heat or air conditioning they get in school is the only climate-controlled environment they’ll be in.

That makes it difficult for Cavazos to call off school even when weather conditions deteriorate, he said.

“What weighs on my mind those days are all the kids that don’t have the luxury of saying, ‘I’m staying home today, so it’s going to be a great day,’” Cavazos said. “On the flip side, it’s, ‘I’m staying home, so I might not have a meal, and it’s not going to be very warm.’”

Every Friday, students in many Arlington schools take home “backpack meals” prepared by the staff so the students have healthy food over the weekend and return Monday ready to learn, Cavazos added.

“That’s a reality that we deal with in our schools and schools across North Texas,” he said.

The North Texas Food Bank partners with DFW-area schools on backpack programs, Cunningham said.

“The teacher identifies who in the classroom they think are food insecure, because teachers know that kids can’t learn if they’re hungry,” she said. “If it’s waiting for food, the brain can’t function as well and absorb knowledge. It can also cause behavioral issues. They’re ‘hangry.’”

Nearly 73 percent of students in Dallas County are economically disadvantaged, which means they qualify for assistance from the federal government for free or reduced-price lunch, according to the Texas Education Agency. The rate for Dallas ISD, North Texas’ largest school district, is much higher, at 88 percent.

In terms of education quality, Dallas ISD has improved in the past four years, with more programs tailored to meet employers’ needs, said Todd Williams, president of Commit Partnership, one of several groups working on school reform in the Dallas area.

School district quality is a critical factor in corporate relocations and expansions, and despite the improvements, Dallas ISD has a long way to go, Williams said.

“Competing for Amazon has been a big area of focus for the business leaders (in Dallas) because they know they are asking what our educational pipeline looks like,” Williams said. “It’s not our proudest moment. We’ve got so many great things about relocating here, but our education pathways are not as strong as they need to be.”

Dallas leaders need to address socioeconomic problems clogging the educational pipeline to remain competitive, said Pedro Noguera, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles. Noguera, who analyzed Commit’s most recent data, is a sociologist who specializes in ways that schools are influenced by social and economic conditions and demographic trends.

“The question, particularly for the business community, is, ‘Can this city continue on this path and stay viable as a major city?’” Noguera said. “You have so many people who are not able to participate fully in the economy, not able to contribute, not able to have access to the jobs that are available. The key to all of that is a better education system.”

Cities nationwide have long underinvested in career and technical education, although many metro areas are doing a better job than Dallas, Noguera said. Boston, one of the other finalist cities competing against DFW for Amazon, has better prepared its young people for high-wage jobs in which growth will occur, he said.

“They’ve thought about it for a long time,” Noguera said. “There is a group there called Jobs for the Future that has been working with the schools.”


With an average house price in North Texas of $312,000, the American Dream of home ownership is out of reach for an increasing segment of the workforce, said Beth Van Duyne, regional administrator for the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and a former Irving mayor and city council member.

“If you’re spending money on a mortgage, that’s money you’re not able to spend on health care,” she said. “That’s money you’re not able to spend on food.”

In Dallas County, 293,000 households have a home mortgage, and nearly 100,000 of them spend 30 percent or more of their income on housing, the CFT study says.

Even worse, nearly half of the 430,000 renters in Dallas County spend more than 30 percent of their income on rent, the study found.

Some of the problem stems from misconceptions about who lives in public housing or uses HUD vouchers to pay the rent, she said.

“That’s your kid’s third-grade teacher, or that’s the nurse who helped your grandfather,” Van Duyne said. “When you put a face to those folks, you understand why we need to work to makes sure that all levels of our community have some place to live that they can afford.”

As part of an effort to restore Dallas’ middle class, the Dallas City Council this month approved a new comprehensive housing policy designed to produce 20,000 new homes in three years.

The move came after a market-value analysis of the city’s housing stock. The policy creates three types of areas — emerging market areas, stabilization areas and redevelopment areas. Based on the area, the city will implement zoning and financing strategies aimed at encouraging middle class families to buy homes, renovating existing housing and increasing housing production.

Emerging markets include a part of Pleasant Grove near U.S. Highway 175, areas around the Interstate 35E Southern Gateway project and the University Hills area near the University of North Texas at Dallas campus. Officials will focus on code enforcement and make infrastructure improvements to prepare those areas for real estate development in the future.

Vickery Meadow, Casa View, much of West Dallas and the eastern side of downtown are among the stabilization areas. Those areas border stronger neighborhoods and are susceptible to gentrification, so the strategy there is to keep residents in place through property tax freezes and other measures.

Dallas City Manager T.C. Broadnax, who worked to develop the market-value analysis, said mixed-income neighborhoods help “decentralize poverty.” The housing policy aims to diffuse the concentration of poverty and race that stem from the way Dallas developed over the decades, he said.

The analysis and resulting housing policy focus not just on property values and land uses, but on the impacts of city policies and economic incentives on people, Broadnax said.


No one can accuse Shamy Conley of having it easy.

When Conley was 16, her mother died. She moved from Granbury, population 7,978, to Dallas to live with her sister and enrolled in Bryan Adams High School in the Casa View neighborhood of East Dallas.

“It was a big culture shock and I wasn’t really doing (well) in school here, so I got kicked out my junior year,” she said.

Conley’s sister, who was five years older, was shot to death at the residence they shared as the two were preparing to go out to celebrate their 18th and 23rd birthdays.

Conley had her first daughter when she was 20, then a son and another daughter by the age of 23.

“It was hard,” Conley said. “At first, they were all so little and really close in age. When my oldest daughter was getting ready to start kindergarten, I had to figure out what I was going to do and how I was going to get to work.”

Conley worked office jobs with various Dallas companies, including TXU and Oncor, but kept losing them because of the difficulty of juggling jobs and the needs of her children, she said.

In her most recent setback, Conley totaled her car in a wreck. She had just started a new job but lost it because she couldn’t figure out how she was going to get her children to school and herself to work. The job loss caused her to lose her apartment when she couldn’t pay rent.

So, she Googled “transitional living programs,” and Interfaith Family Services popped up. The Dallas organization assists homeless families with temporary housing, child care, employment counseling, financial classes and other services to steer them toward self-sufficiency.

Conley called and explained her situation and ended up in an Interfaith apartment for nine months. During that time, Interfaith helped Conley get her GED, buy a car, get to and from job interviews, reduce her debt and find a new apartment.

“They helped me identify what I needed to do to make sure that I was self-sufficient to take care of my kids,” Conley said. “They gave me the support system, the child care and the encouragement to keep pushing forward.”

When she got her new apartment, Interfaith hooked Conley up with a Dallas nonprofit called Dwell with Dignity that designs home interiors for families in need of a cheerier environment.

Life is looking up, she said. But with children ages 7, 9 and 10, and a long commute from East Dallas to Irving, Conley’s hands are full.

In the morning, she wakes the kids at 6:30 a.m., gets the kids ready for school by 7, takes them to school, then drives to work. In the evening, she drives back, picks up the kids from after-school care at the Boys and Girls Club, drives home, helps with homework, takes them to soccer practice or other activities, then cooks dinner.

“Then it’s go to sleep and repeat,” Conley said.

“The biggest challenge is making sure we have enough to pay the bills, keep everything up and running, keep the lights and water on,” she said. “I feel like I need to keep advancing so I can make enough money to take care of them. Even at $18 an hour, it’s still not enough.”

Now that she has her GED, Conley wants to go back to school to study to be a teacher or a social worker, she said.

“I want to make sure my kids know about how important college and all of that is,” Conley said. “Things that I didn’t get taught, like financial stuff.”

“I want to show them by being an example,” she added. “I feel like I got a late start, but I’m getting it done.”

Women impacted more in the regional wealth gap

Although the Communities Foundation of Texas report does not address gender, layering it on top of race and ethnicity would increase the inequality because women, especially women of color, are disproportionately impacted in each of the areas the study covered, said Roslyn Dawson Thompson, president and CEO of the Dallas Women’s Foundation.

In Dallas County, 34 percent of all households are headed by women. However, 54 percent of households living in poverty are woman-headed.

“Women make up an extremely disproportionate share of households living in poverty,” Dawson Thompson said.

The wealth gap in Dallas County is a real threat to the future of the community and the economy, she said. Women, and particularly women of color with children, are most affected by the gap, which reflects disparities in pay, lack of access to “wealth accelerators,” like paid leave and health insurance, and lack of access to education and employment opportunities.

Women hold most of the minimum wage jobs in Dallas County, and only 37.9 percent of employed women are in managerial or professional occupations, Dawson Thompson said. Factor in the dramatic increase in the county’s Hispanic population, where fewer than 10 percent of women hold a bachelor’s or advanced degree, and where, on average, a Hispanic woman earns just 38.4 cents to every dollar earned by a white man in Dallas County, and the gap widens more.

“Ultimately, the deep disparities in Dallas County will continue to perpetuate generational poverty, producing fewer and fewer skilled workers from within our own population,” she said. “We have to take a hard look at the factors that have exacerbated the wealth gap and have the courage as a community to address them.”