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Poverty is on the rise in Tucson--and the percentage of poor children is at an all-time high

Poverty is once again on the rise in Tucson--and it affects more than a quarter of Tucson's children.

"Poverty is toxic, especially for children," declared Barbara Atwood, a UA professor of law, at a recent forum on the issue. "The United States has one of the worst rates (of poverty) in the industrialized world.

"The percentage of children living in households that earn less than the federal poverty level ($20,444 for a family of four in 2006) is 18 percent in the U.S., 20 percent in Arizona, and 27 percent in Tucson. That should be of concern to everyone."

Atwood added: "Minority children are much more likely to live in poverty."

Sponsored by the Primavera Foundation, the forum looked at various aspects of poverty, but its impact on children was a central theme.

"Poor children are disproportionally uninsured," Atwood said during a follow-up interview. "Maybe they don't get enrolled (in medical programs for the poor), so they have to rely on a trip to the emergency room for primary care."

Atwood said Arizona should follow the lead of states such Vermont, Connecticut, Delaware and Minnesota, which have established goals for enrolling poor children in health-care programs. "We need to be more proactive in Arizona in our efforts to identify and enroll poor children. We need more outreach," she said.

At the forum, Atwood also cited the Catch-22 situation that poor single mothers live with daily: If her income rises, she will gradually lose benefits--for example, a child-care subsidy, which could cost her thousands of dollars.

"When kids have so many odds against them from the beginning, the human costs of lost lives from a moral standpoint (is tremendous)," Atwood said.

Those costs, and the number of people living in poverty in Tucson, are steadily going up.

Local poverty in the city during the 1980s zoomed from less than 15 percent to more than 20 percent of the population in 1990. The booming '90s saw a decrease by a few percentage points, but the figure has risen again to around the 20 percent level--and the current hard times will probably drive the number even higher.

The percentage of children in town living in poverty also declined in the '90s, but has similarly risen since then. The current 27 percent figure is not only a historic high, but also three points above Phoenix's rate.

While some of the Tucson children living in poverty are here illegally, most of them are U.S. citizens. As Nina Rabin, director of border research for the Southwest Institute for Research on Women, noted at the forum: "Over three-quarters of children of immigrants are themselves citizens."

But children aren't the only people impacted by a rising tide of local poverty, said Peggy Hutchison, executive director of the Primavera Foundation.

"Poverty in Tucson is at a crisis level in terms of struggling individuals and families," Hutchison said in an interview. She also noted that poverty isn't even seen by many people in town.

Tucson's poor, Hutchison emphasized, come from a wide range of backgrounds. They can be people who don't have a high school diploma or a GED, and thus don't earn a living wage. Hutchison added that the home-foreclosure situation is driving some families into poverty. She also said she believes the payday-loan business should be outlawed for what it does to the poor.

"There's a dire lack of affordable housing in Tucson," Hutchison indicated. "We must have greater state and federal investment in affordable housing, more job training and health care," she suggested.

Another group of poor people mentioned by Hutchison are those who have been denied Social Security disability payments. But even those who receive them are struggling mightily.

On a recent cool, windy morning, Santa Monica "Monie" Valenzuela was at the Casa Maria food pantry in South Tucson picking up a bag of supplies. To get by, the 61-year old said she also collected occasional food boxes from two nearby churches.

"I get $630 monthly in disability," Valenzuela said, "and pay $430 in rent (which doesn't include utilities). I get $150 a month in food stamps, but everything's going up. That's why I come over here," she said, gesturing at all the poor people around her.

Valenzuela is one of almost 150,000 people living in poverty in metropolitan Tucson. They are the people who the Primavera Foundation has been trying to help for the past 25-years.

To mark its silver anniversary, Primavera on Oct. 2 will hold a celebration at the Leo Rich Theater at the Tucson Convention Center. Around that same time, it will be sponsoring a second forum on poverty.

"It could include speakers on the disabled living in poverty," Hutchison said of the next forum, "or affordable housing, or the living wage and workforce development."

Whatever the topic, Hutchison believes the Primavera series on poverty will continue beyond this year. Given the increasing numbers of poor people in Tucson, that shouldn't be surprising.

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