Economic inequality challenges cities

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Ongoing development and the presence of major employers are expected to help sustain the continued growth of economic prosperity in Montgomery County for years to come. However, despite the region’s economic advantages, the county is grappling with a large need for services to help the 12.3 percent of the population that is living below the federal poverty level, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

Stark differences in the needs of residents among the cities of Conroe, Montgomery and Willis have led the cities, local school districts and nonprofit agencies to address a variety of needs within each city.

“The challenge is that we have pockets of poverty just like a metropolitan city,” said Julie Adcock, Montgomery County United Way vice president of marketing. “The issue really is that we have so much rural area, and that area gets forgotten because people don’t see it in their everyday lives.”

Macroeconomics

Although ongoing development is expected to draw a wave of new residents to the cities of Conroe, Montgomery and Willis, a large number of economically disadvantaged residents live in the area.

Conroe resources

Residents of Conroe represent a wide range of income levels. The average family income may be more than $73,000, but 20.4 percent of Conroe residents are classified as living in poverty, according to the census. 

To help those residents, local nonprofit agencies have increased collaborative efforts to offer transportation, case management, food, clothing and resources throughout the area, said Chad Patterson, Crisis Assistance Center executive director.

“Historically, there has been a tendency for nonprofits working very independently versus locking arms together,” Patterson said. “I have sensed a real change in that, especially over the last year.”

In fall 2014, CAC implemented Hand Up, a program that encourages self-sufficiency among low-income residents through job training, financial management and comprehensive case management. The program was launched in collaboration with numerous partners including the MCUW, First United Methodist Church and Workforce Solutions.

Weighing WealthAdcock said transportation is a major obstacle for residents in need of health care services. To address that need, the city of Conroe launched its Conroe Connection bus line last year, providing public transportation for residents—particularly those around the Dougan neighborhood. The system offers trips to health care and social services, such as the Conroe Regional Medical Center, Workforce Solutions and the Salvation Army, said Tommy Woolley, Conroe assistant director of projects and transportation.

According to the MCUW, a high concentration of low-income residents live in central Conroe neighborhoods like the Dougan area.

“The bus system is set up so it gets people in areas that may not have vehicles to access jobs, to get to shopping [centers]or the doctor’s office,” Woolley said. “That is why we go south to the medical center and places where people normally go.”

In its first year of operation, the bus system has transported about 28,000 riders, Woolley said. Because demand for the service has been so high, the city is considering a third route to connect residents to additional resources throughout the city—possibly to the Social Security office, Montgomery County Memorial Library, Conroe High School or LSC-Conroe Center.

Health care, language and cultural barriers are challenges for low income families within Conroe ISD, said Rod Chaves, CISD community outreach, dropout prevention and health services director.

In 2000 the district opened its first Newcomer Center at Conroe High School and has since opened centers at three other campuses. The centers provide language support to schools and parents, assist with counselors, connect families with resources and guide immigrant parents through the American educational system.

Chaves said the department today employs six social workers to help with pregnant, homeless, special needs and at-risk students.

“By having a newcomer center, it gave principals a place to refer parents, and for the families to have a place to go and talk about whatever their needs were,” Chaves said.

The cities of Conroe, Montgomery and Willis have distinct economic demographics within their communities.

Willis expects high-end development

The city of Willis continues to experience rapid population growth. With about 7,720 residents within its city limits, City Manager Hector Forestier said the city has nearly doubled its population since 2000. Growth is expected to continue with residential housing projects by the Howard Hughes Corporation and Caldwell Companies planned in the city limits.

“Imagine if you have over 4,000 [new]homes in the area­­—you are bringing another 12,000 to 15,000 people to th­e area,” Forestier said. A Helping hand

Because the homes are expected to have a wide range of price points, incoming development is expected to add to the economic diversity of the city. In Willis,
74 percent of households earn less than $50,000 per year, and 19.5 percent of all families are living below the poverty level, according to the census.

To aid economically disadvantaged students—who encompass 58 percent of the student population—Willis ISD launched the Relationships Inspiring Student’s Education Mentoring program in 2014 to connect students with adult volunteer role models, Superintendent Tim Harkrider said.

“It goes beyond education,” Harkrider said. “The goal is to have a positive role model in a student’s life—someone who isn’t beating you up about your grades but trying to bring them some motivation and support.”

The district also offers language, parenting and nutritional classes as well as support groups, clothing and a resource library, at its parent support center.

“Our Hispanic population here is around 30 percent,” Harkrider said. “We offer [English as a second language] classes to parents who are wanting to learn English. We have offered parenting classes for English and Spanish speakers.”

The Lone Star Family Health Center opened a new clinic in mid-December in Willis to provide access to health care services. The center’s Conroe location is a popular destination for uninsured residents because it offers payment programs based on income. The Conroe location saw more than 3,700 patients from the Willis area last year.

According to 2014 census statistics, 32 percent of Willis residents do not have health insurance.

Forestier said he expects the demographics of the city to change as incoming developments attract different levels of housing and new residents to the area. He said appraised property values have continually increased since 2011 when the city’s Kroger Marketplace was built.

Wealth weighs on Montgomery[polldaddy poll=9320859]

Unlike Conroe and Willis, which possess high numbers of residents below the poverty line, the city of Montgomery boasts an average household income over $105,000 within its primary retail trade area—which closely mirrors the Montgomery ISD school boundaries.

Only 23.5 percent of MISD students are classified as economically disadvantaged. The low percentage can be attributed to the high cost of housing throughout the district, particularly within Lake Conroe communities such as Bentwater and Walden, said Shannan Reid, Montgomery Economic Development Corp. director.

Because the school district is considered to be property wealthy, it has paid about $9.72 million under
Chapter 41 of the Texas Education Code since 2004. Known as the Robin Hood tax, the policy is intended to share funds from property wealthy districts with districts that are property poor.

Payment of the tax means that the district has had to cut back on its budget and projects in recent years.

“Primarily, what gets cut [is]preventive maintenance, capital projects and purchases [such as]buses, technology and other equipment,” MISD Chief Financial Officer Sharon Fields said. “There would be a lot we could do if the $10 million paid in Robin Hood was given back to us today.”

The district does receive some federal Title I funding for students at Montgomery and Stewart Creek elementary schools, which have 40 percent and 36 percent of their student population considered economically disadvantaged, respectively, said Carolyn Fiaschetti, MISD director of special programs. Those schools serve homes along FM 149 and Hwy. 105—where a majority of the area’s most affordable homes, or homes that have been in a family for generations, are concentrated.

Still, the city is in need of entry-level homes that would be affordable to teachers and service workers. Reid said local employees often commute into the city for work, making it difficult for employers to retain service staff because similar employment can be found closer to where they live.

“That person is going to pass five jobs they could get in Conroe on the way to this job,” Reid said.

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