This article was reported on KHOU TV Channel 11 Houston. Baytown is a suburb of Houston and considered one of the poorest.

Be sure and give to your local food pantries this Holiday Season and every day! This economy has our neighbors hurting as unemployment checks dry up.

HOUSTON — Like a lot of people growing up in Baytown and the other blue-collar towns east of Houston, Wade Williams never thought about college.

Why would he? For an earlier generation, the refineries and petrochemical plants along the Houston Ship Channel had provided anyone with a high school diploma – sometimes not even that – a ticket to the middle class.

But it’s not your grandfather’s economy anymore, a shift that has helped to create a post-recession paradox of rising suburban poverty even when jobs are available.

Almost 23 percent of Baytown residents live in poverty, up dramatically over the past few decades and higher than in Houston’s other suburbs. Education levels have remained low, and many people don’t qualify for the high-paying jobs that the city has to offer.

“People still have the image that the refinery jobs are guys with monkey wrenches and a hard hat,” said Baytown Mayor Stephen H. DonCarlos. “They are high-tech jobs, and young guys can make $70,000 or $90,000.”

Increasingly, those jobs require more education or experience, along with rigorous background checks and drug screenings.

“It’s not as easy now,” said Lionel Jagnanan, a manager at Jacobs Engineering and a 35-year veteran at various plants and contractors. “Companies want young people to go to a college, to go through operator training or technical training.”

Williams, a 20-year-old from Hardin, got the message. He found work with an industrial contractor in Baytown after graduating from high school, but quickly realized that his opportunities were limited.

“I decided I’d stop being a roughneck and make some money,” he said.

Now enrolled in a process technology program at Lee College, Williams hopes to avoid the boom-and-bust cycle of hiring and layoffs that plague unskilled workers and to break the contradiction that has ensnared Baytown – good jobs and a growing population, while both unemployment and poverty rates are stubbornly high.

“We’re somewhat puzzled,” DonCarlos said. “The job market in Baytown has been very, very good.”

Baytown has always been about oil and jobs.

Located on the north shore of Galveston Bay, 30 miles east of

downtown Houston between the San Jacinto and Trinity Rivers, the area began to boom with the Tabbs Bay oil strike in 1908, and its industrial future was cemented when Humble Oil built a refinery there in 1919.

For the next half century, “you were out of the social loop if you did not work for Humble,” said John Britt, coordinator of the honors program at Lee College and a history professor there for 47 years.

Humble is now ExxonMobil, joined by Chevron Phillips and Bayer as the town’s major industrial employers. But the plants have continued to shape the city of almost 72,000, drawing a diverse workforce over the past 60 years.

African-American workers arrived to fill construction jobs at the plants, said John D. Márquez, a Baytown native and assistant professor of African-American and Latino/Latina Studies at Northwestern University.

Latinos followed in the 1970s, as the plants began to rely more on lower-paid contract workers.

Márquez’s new book, WetBlacks and Brown Panthers: Foundational Blackness and (New) Latino Subjectivities in the Gulf South, is about the cultural transformation in Baytown and elsewhere along the coast, a shift that was tumultuous at times.

Baytown is now 43.4 percent Latino and 15.5 percent African-American. Most other residents are Anglo.

The 2010 American Community Survey found 22.7 percent of Baytown residents live in poverty, the highest rate among Houston’s suburbs.

That’s up from 15.5 percent in 2000, and a sharp increase from 1970, when the census found just 5.8 percent of families were below the poverty level.

The poverty level in 2010 was defined as $22,314 or less for a family of four.

Poverty has increased in suburbs across the country over the past decade, but the growth was by no means even. Just 3.3 percent of League City residents were at or below the poverty level in 2010, and the rates were similar in several other Houston suburbs.

David Mohlman, executive director of the United Way of Baytown, said need has gone up since Hurricane Ike hit in 2008.

“As time went on, we’ve seen a significant increase in the need for food, more so than any time that people can remember,” he said.

People who came to Baytown for post-hurricane construction work may have added to the need when that work ended, Mohlman said.

Unemployment in Baytown was 11.6 percent in September.

Education levels suggest another explanation.

Almost 75 percent of Baytown residents age 25 and older had a

high school diploma in 2010, up from 52 percent in 1970. But the percentage with a bachelor’s degree hadn’t budged.

Just 12.8 percent of people had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2010, less than one-fourth the level in more prosperous suburbs and about half the state average.

The statistics suggest that the economic challenges facing Baytown and a number of other Texas cities go beyond the recession.

“Corporations are able to demand more education,” Márquez said. “There’s less opportunity for someone with just a high school education.”

That’s not news to Nicole Hempel, 30, who spent the past 12 years as a bartender in Baytown.

“The money’s here, but all the money leaves town,” she said.

“All the (plant) operators live outside of Baytown.”

Hempel, a single mother, is hoping to capture some of that money when she graduates from the process technology program at Lee College in Baytown.

The program offers a one-year certificate and a two-year associate degree and enrolls about one of every six students at the community college.

Some plants and contractors still hire workers who have only a high school diploma. But Bryant Dyer, lead instructor for the program, said that is changing as the work becomes more technical.

Technicians earn about $75,000 in base pay, with overtime pushing it to $100,000 or more, he said, attracting even people with four-year degrees in other fields.

“If you want to be in this field, this (class) is the heart of it,” Hempel said. “It’s the only decent job in Baytown.”