From the 2011 U.S. Census figures, Tucson came in with the eighth highest poverty rate in large metropolitan areas, and now a study in partnership with the UA and the city of Tucson wants to provide some answers and direction that policy-makers can use.
UA sociology professor Lane Kenworthy with the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, says the first part of the year-long project is an analysis of other cities similar to Tucson and how they've addressed poverty issues. The second-half of the project will be a local survey of more than 250 Tucson residents living in poverty and some in census tracks that identify as medium income, as well as those who identify as homeless.
Kenworthy is a member of the city of Tucson's Commission on Poverty, started last year by Mayor Jonathan Rothschild to develop programs to address Tucson's high poverty rate, which is partnering with the college on the project. The college contributed half the costs of the research project and the commission has matched the same amount with a $19,000 Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation grant secured by the Primavera Foundation and Our Family Services.
According to Kenworthy, the project will ask three questions: Why does Tucson have a relatively high poverty rate for a major metropolitan area? Is just looking at the poverty rate misleading or incomplete as an indicator of how people are doing in their lives? What can Tucson do to make things better?
"Why don't we do very well compared to other comparable metropolitan areas?" Kenworthy asked. "All urban areas are going to have some poverty, but it's worth knowing what Tucson is doing."
Kenworthy said Tucson's transient population has come into question when addressing poverty, especially immigration, but it will also be important to look at how poverty is calculated in the Census. It's usually around tax time, so people are more aware of their income levels. Besides income, the project will also look at features in neighborhoods and other resources available to them that can make a difference in people's lives.
"Imagine a city or place where you have a lot of people around the poverty line, but you have good transportation, care, good quality schooling and police protection. That would be different then what we think about poverty and the poverty rate doesn't tell you anything whatsoever about that," he said.
Five other cities will be studied as part of the project. Those cities haven't been selected yet, but Kenworthy said they want to know what cities have had an effective approach to help alleviate and reduce poverty. This first phase of the project will end Dec. 31 with a white paper given to the Commission on Poverty with case studies of the five cities and recommendations for Tucson.
The second part of the project will start in January with a survey of 250 Tucson families and a new set of questions: Who has low income, for how long and why? How does this affect their material well-being? To what degree do people living in poverty have access to public goods and services that help to compensate for being low income?
"There hasn't been anything done that's quite like this that's relatively large," Kenworthy said.
He's not sure where the survey will take place but he added that those interviewed will include not only those living below the poverty line, but a sample of those identified as middle class, too and about 10 identified as homeless. UA students from the "Poverty in American Cities" class will conduct the interviews, input the data and help provide early analysis in the spring semester.
Once the survey is done, it will be up to Tucson's policy makers to decided what to do with the information gathered—is Tucson doing well with transportation, health care and early education, or is it struggling? Are there areas that can't be addressed simply looking at income levels, such as a quality of life people may experience differently here than they do in other cities?
In terms of looking at what cities to include as part of the analysis, Kenworthy said they determined it wasn't that important to make sure the cities had comparable demographics—large immigrant and Latino, but focus on cities they've found to have interesting and innovative approaches to addressing poverty.
"In the end, (we'll) leave it up to policy makers and they may not do anything with it for five or 20 years, but at least if we know what works and we'll be having right conversation," Kenworthy said.
Peggy Hutchison, Primavera Foundation CEO and co-chair of the Mayor's Commission on Poverty with Our Family Services executive director Patti Caldwell, said while it is true Tucson's high poverty rate wasn't a huge surprise for those working with poor families, homeless or housing issues, poverty and how it's addressed in a city is complex.
"And that's not a justification," Hutchison said, "but we need more than simple data from the American Communities Survey that we get now. The information needs to be gathered in a deeper way that's relevant to Tucson."
While Kenworthy sees the information being useful for those who work in city government or are elected to office, Hutchison said she anticipates that the information can help those who work in housing and community organizations being able to take the analysis and look at programs to see if they "really have an impact and why."
"If we're not having a big impact then we need to switch it up. Perhaps it tugs at our heart strings, but it isn't having a big impact, so we need to ask what we might do differently?"
Casa Maria's Brian Flagg, no stranger to poverty issues in the city, told the Weekly he hopes good comes out of the commission and UA study, but he's still out when it comes to if the mayor or commission really want to address the issue or use the commission to make it seem like issues are being addressed when they aren't.
"He talks poverty and it makes him look good," Flagg said. "But if he really cared he should be the biggest advocate for not raising Sun Tran fares, not cutting routes and not allowing developers near the Ronstadt Transit Center."
While Flagg is not on the poverty commission, he does serve on the transit commission as a representative of the Bus Riders Union, a group he helped found that advocates for maintaining affordable bus costs and routes.
"I think what's neglected is the big picture. The mayor and council only preside over a relatively small amount of discretionary spending and the majority of their budget is spoken for. The real true answer is on a bigger level and national level: "How are you going to employ people?" Flagg asked.
"What gives dignity is full employment," he said, not the programs that keep people alive and help their children, like welfare or food stamps.