Hurricane Harvey deepens income divide in Crossroads

In what used to be her children’s playroom, Angelica Castaneda, 30, mops up bleach and water while barefoot. She cleans three times a day to protect her family from the opportunistic organisms that infested the home as a result of Hurricane Harvey. Sometimes, the cleaning chemicals and kicked-up grime make her ill.

Every day we look at our community, but oftentimes we do not truly see.

Perhaps as a defense mechanism or just out of the numbness of the daily grind, we look past the poverty in our path. Almost 17 percent of Victoria County residents live in poverty, and more than 1 in 5 children do, according to census estimates. Almost 1 in 5 Victoria County residents have no health insurance, meaning they are one serious sickness away from plunging deeper into despair.

The situation is much the same or worse in Victoria’s surrounding counties. Our middle class is being hollowed out across the country, and we see evidence of this every day in our neighborhoods and our schools.

Look inside our classrooms to see where we’re headed if we don’t turn this tide. Almost two-thirds of students in the Victoria Independent School District are classified as socioeconomically disadvantaged.

Hidden in Plain Sight logo

Hurricane Harvey laid all of this bare – and threatens to make it much worse. The Victoria Advocate is examining this dangerous divide in a special series called “Hidden in Plain Sight.”

After the storm, some wealthy residents worried about collecting insurance payouts on coastal vacation homes while others trying to break out of poverty begged family to let them stay on couches or fled to larger cities with more housing options. In several Crossroads towns, there are no grocery stores, doctors’ offices or banks, let alone social service agencies to serve people who live there. Some of those communities feel forgotten.

The Category 4 hurricane struck when some families fought simply to stay above water. Many seniors relied on limited fixed incomes. Other people worked two jobs, or crammed several generations into a single home.

Although Texas frequently ranks among the cheapest states to live in the U.S., housing prices in the Gulf Coast region largely reflect the boom-and-bust oil economy, which has forced locals with low-wage jobs to compete with out-of-town oil field workers for rental homes. Then Harvey struck, exacerbating the housing problems. Half of the teachers in Victoria’s school district reported being displaced at some point, according to a school district survey.

For many of the families teetering on the edge of financial collapse, Harvey was the catalyst that sent them into a downward spiral. Some lost their jobs. Others spent the little savings they did have evacuating. As research from across the globe has shown, disasters often hurt the most vulnerable communities worse — a disparity that continues to grow in the months and years after they strike. Harvey appears to be no different.

Rebuilding will take commitment, compassion and creativity from residents and their government leaders. It requires examining the systems that led to people being so vulnerable in the first place. And that means talking about poverty – a subject that’s often politicized, especially deep in the heart of Texas. It’s an issue that divides people based on their views about politics, economics, race and class.

Yet, as Crossroads communities are focused on rebuilding and applying for grants, this is the moment to talk about rebuilding stronger than before. This is the time to talk frankly about what’s hidden in plain sight.

This opinion reflects the views of the Victoria Advocate’s editorial board.

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