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Why DFW’s widening wealth gap matters to everyone

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.
With three young children and a lengthy daily commute to work, Shamy Conley's hands are full. The single mom, who wants to be a teacher or social worker, struggles to make ends meet on $18 an hour. (Credit: Jake Dean, Dallas Business Journal)

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.

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.”

To read more on how the wealth gap in North Texas impacts the region and you, click here.