How Much Do Families Need To Get By In San Antonio?

Aug 27, 2013

There is "barely getting by" and there is "living comfortably," but when you look at the numbers side by side, you see the wide gulf that separates the two and the possibilities that space represents.

At the bottom is the federal poverty threshold, which is $23,550 this year for a family of four. This number is based on a food cost standard set in 1962, coincidentally the same year the first Wal-Mart store opened in Rogers, Arkansas.

At the top of the range is an updated budget calculator from the Economic Policy Institute that says a family of four needs $61,344 to have a "secure yet modest living standard" in San Antonio. This estimate is based on data from each city surveyed and takes into account additional costs like rent, child care, and health care.

But those are the extremes, and the $38,000 difference between them -- an $18/hour full-time job  -- doesn't say much about where most of San Antonio lives, which is somewhere in the middle.

The median household income in San Antonio, $43,961 in the last census, lands virtually halfway between the federal poverty line and the Economic Policy Institute estimate.

So is this what defines getting by in San Antonio? Or is it just one more number that tells us one piece of the picture?

Just getting by

The federal poverty threshold, which is the current benchmark for defining what is "poor" in the United States, hasn't undergone any major cost-of-living adjustments since it was first introduced in the early 1960s.

The current numbers are still derived from a standard set in 1962, that is the cost of an average basket of groceries, multiplied by three. At that time, the average family spent one-third of their budget on food.

The poverty threshold (that "bag of groceries") has been adjusted for inflation each year, but the percentage a family spends on food has changed drastically over time, as have the costs for transportation, health care and so on.

But that doesn't mean the numbers are entirely useless.

"There is some validity to them (poverty numbers)," said Dr. Lloyd Potter, the demographer for the State of Texas, "because if you look overall I think they are a fairly strong indicator of people that are just barely getting by or maybe not getting by."

Potter said one of the biggest challenges with the federal poverty line in describing how people live in each earnings bracket is that it cannot predict or take into account the range of circumstances in each individual household.

Two households next to each other could have the same number of people with the same income, but one could have a family member with a chronic illness that will place a cost burden on the entire household.

Each story is different

San Antonio household income map from 2005-2010 data. Households making under $60,000 (purple areas) make up most of the city. Interactive graphic at:
San Antonio household income map from 2005-2010 data. Households making under $60,000 (purple areas) make up most of the city. Interactive graphic at:

We asked for people in San Antonio to share their cost of living expenses and found a perfect example of what makes each living experience unique:

With two households that each have three people and a yearly income nearly in the middle of our range at about $38,000, one household does it with two sources of income and the other has seven.

There is a $500 difference in housing cost between the two and over a $300 difference in each transportation, health care and what each considered "other necessities."

Though only limited conclusions can be drawn from such a small sample size, these two examples offer a window into the reality facing each household in San Antonio -- the push and pull of income and expenses that each home must navigate in their own way.

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