Drive around some parts of town, and you’ll see signs that Tyler is doing great. New hospitals and specialized medical centers keep opening up. Investors have erected vast new commercial developments along the city’s southern edge. Our unemployment rate has been lower than the national average, and the Great Recession ended earlier here, too.
But this success has not been equally distributed. For all of Tyler’s hustle and bustle, a surprisingly large share of residents isn’t better off than they were 15 or even 25 years ago. For too many Tylerites, upward mobility — the stuff of the American Dream — has stalled out.
Take a look at the poverty rate. In 2000, 15.5 percent of the population lived below the poverty line. From 2010 to 2014, that rate had increased to an average of 18.6 percent. In dollars and cents, that means that about 1 out of 5 Tylerites were living on less than $12,000 for an individual, or $25,000 for a family of four.
Those numbers are scary enough, but the reality is likely worse. Official poverty rates are widely criticized for underestimating what it costs to put food on the table and keep the lights on. That’s why researchers at MIT calculate a “living wage,” a number they say shows what it really takes to get by across America.
According to MIT’s number crunching, a single person living in the Tyler metro area needs to earn $22,000 a year to survive, or $10.50 an hour. A family of four with two working adults needs $59,000, or $14.23 an hour. As you can see, that’s higher than the poverty line — and higher than the Texas state minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Housing is one of the biggest ways families feel the gap. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, you need to earn over $16 an hour to afford a two-bedroom apartment in the Tyler metro area. If you make just minimum wage, you’d need to work 90 hours a week.
Census data for the last ten years shows that other measures of individual prosperity are similarly dour. Local homeownership rates are flat. Self-employment rates (a measure of entrepreneurship) are flat. Median income is flat. Education levels are up slightly, but there is little evidence people are being better paid as a result.
How can it be that Tyler’s economy has done so well, but many of Tyler’s citizens have fared so poorly? The answer isn’t cut and dry, but we can understand some of what’s happened in Tyler by looking at the nation as a whole.
Like the rest of the country, Tyler has fallen into a period of stagnant wage growth. Most people simply aren’t getting raises. A lot of this has to do with the kind of work you can get. Across the country, far more people now work in fast food and other low or minimum-wage paying service industry jobs, and far fewer people work in historically middle-class manufacturing jobs. Locally, we saw this in the shuttering of the Goodyear plant in 2007 and the Carrier plant in 2013.
To be sure, new jobs have popped up in town even as factories closed, especially in the medical field. But while healthcare is by far the largest industry in Tyler, retail sales and food service are second and third by a wide margin. About 1 out of every 9 Tylerites works in a poverty-wage service job.
Moreover, despite our area’s low unemployment rate, recent migration to Tyler has not been driven by professional opportunities. From 2010 to 2014, census data shows that, on average, new arrivals to Tyler had significantly higher poverty rates than those who already lived here.
All that being said, Tyler is in many ways better off than other parts of the country. The rise of the healthcare industry has undoubtedly cushioned the local economy against the decline of manufacturing jobs. Yet at the same time, the number of Tylerites who don’t make enough to get by keeps going up.
If you drive around south Tyler, it feels like the city is booming. But visit other parts of town and you’ll see what the numbers show: a city deeply divided along lines of opportunity. If you were to examine local poverty by race and eduction — as we’ll be doing in a future post — the discrepancies are even more troubling.
We’ll keep digging into the numbers, and we’d love to hear your thoughts on what a Tyler boom for everyone could look like. Drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org.