Fight Back!

We Need Bold Moves To Stem The Tide Of Poverty.

By Editorial

THE PREVAILING perception about our local poverty problem isn't covered by the saying that the proverbial glass is either half full or half empty. Because when it comes to poverty, for years many people in Tucson seem to have asked, "What glass?"

The extent of poverty here is staggering. Statistics show that in 1990 Tucson had the highest percentage of its population living below the federal poverty level of any major city in the state. The local rate was 40 percent higher than Phoenix, considerably above both Flagstaff and Yuma, and more than double the rate in Mesa.

Those statistics also showed that Tucson's median household income was by far the lowest of any of these communities. The figures may be eight years old now, but there's no reason to think they've changed, except for the worse.

Currents The simple fact is, Tucson is Arizona's poorest major community. Today there are almost 100,000 people within the city limits living in poverty. The chances of them escaping this condition seem to be getting worse, not better. That's because many of the jobs created recently are minimum-wage or part-time positions.

Tucson didn't achieve this embarrassing status overnight. It has been decades in the making, and due in large part to incompetent, short-sighted community and business leaders intent on having the most jobs possible, no matter what they paid. If this sounds like an indictment of past practices and business-as-usual in Tucson, it is.

We as a community have accomplished something special: We have very low unemployment, but a poverty-burdened population living in the middle of a quickly disappearing scenic wonderland.

It wasn't always this way--we took a wrong turn somewhere along the line years ago. And if we don't change things, if we don't find the right path, things will go from bad to terrible.

But at least a few positive things are happening. When the City Council finally holds a study session on reducing poverty, perhaps this month, it will have taken a long-awaited first step in addressing this devastating situation.

It's been two years since the Council first agreed to discuss the issue. While the uncountable delays in holding this meeting are inexcusable, at least by having the study session the Council will be acknowledging that a serious poverty problem exists.

THE CITY COUNCIL has paid only minor attention to reducing poverty in the past, as when it considered the well-intentioned but ill-conceived and self-serving jobs-training program proposed by the Pima County Interfaith Council. But more must be done--much more.

The first step must be holding the study session on reducing poverty as soon as possible.

The Council, the Pima County Board of Supervisors, business leaders, the media, the folks in the suburbs and the public in general must recognize the scope of the issue. This isn't a southside or a central-city problem, it isn't a minority problem, and it isn't a single-parent household problem. It's a Tucson problem.

Then the community needs to agree, quickly, on a comprehensive plan to attack the low wages paid in this town. That will take political courage from our elected leaders, something they're not known for. But it must be done. They'll have to step on some well-established toes to do it, but there isn't any other choice.

The plan for reducing poverty should have several components. Local governments can get involved by reducing subsidies paid to attract growth and to encourage annexations. They can get out of the tourism-promotion business.

The City of Tucson could set the example by paying all of its permanent employees at least $8 an hour and requiring anyone who does business with the city to do the same. The City Council can also take the lead in increasing funding for the Greater Tucson Economic Council. GTEC might not be perfect in what it does, but it's the best we have going for us.

The business community, which spent tons of money defeating the minimum-wage initiative in November, should now devote its energies to raising Tucson's wage rate. Pushing Republicans in the state Legislature to provide more spending on childcare, nutrition and transportation programs for the job-hunting poor while fairly equalizing school district funding would be steps in the right direction.

Also, Tucson's educational system must change. Too many dropouts, too few people with skills needed by higher-paying firms, and too much blithering political correctness in the classroom must end.

But the most important part of this plan must include the individual and the family. Without their efforts to encourage education, push for higher wages, oppose crime while supporting community improvement projects, and without their demands for accountability and leadership from elected officials, not much is going to change.

Poverty and low wages are an inbred and persistent problem in Tucson. The issue must be acknowledged, addressed, and reduced--starting now. Change won't happen quickly, but it must happen. Because the alternative is scary.

An ever-increasing number of low-paying jobs, women and children begging on street medians and more poverty-driven crime are simply unacceptable.

This is not a future we can tolerate. Nobody will be able to escape the reality of an ever-poorer Tucson. At least by holding its poverty reduction study session, the City Council will begin a discussion which might help prevent us from growing even poorer tomorrow. TW

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