Poorer Than Average

What's to blame for Tucson's high poverty rate? Various experts disagree

Thanks to the economy, a higher percentage of Americans are now living in poverty. That doesn't bode well for Tucson, since local residents have typically been even poorer than the national average.

"Tucson is like the Ellis Island of the Southwest," suggests Marshall Vest, an economist at the UA, as to why our metropolitan area has so many people in poverty. "The community seems to attract the poor."

Peggy Hutchison instead blames policy decisions. As an example, the executive director of the nonprofit Primavera Foundation, which helps the poor and the homeless, points to the state Legislature's apparent position on education. "The Legislature says education isn't important to us as a state," she remarks.

At the national level, a report released earlier this month by the U.S. Census Bureau concludes: "The poverty rate in 2008 (13.2 percent) was the highest poverty rate since 1997."

Poverty rates in Pima County have traditionally run considerably higher than the national average. Inside the Tucson city limits, the numbers are even worse—sometimes almost 50 percent higher than the national average.

After skyrocketing from below 15 percent in 1980 to a record high of more than 20 percent a decade later, the city's poverty rate has hovered between 18 and 20 percent ever since.

Vest offers a number of possible explanations for these high figures, including the fact that many people with low educational levels and work skills move here. "Tucson is a destination, not just from Mexico," he says, "but also from surrounding states. Tucson is a desirable place to live, and people here take some of their pay in the form of sunshine."

To change Tucson's high poverty status, Vest offers two options. One: "We could make it so people don't want to move here," he says, "so wages would go up."

The other alternative is the one that has been tried for decades, without much obvious success: "We could create more jobs in higher-wage industries," Vest says. "We haven't had much luck doing that recently."

What the head of Tucson's effort to attract higher-paying jobs thinks about that possibility isn't clear. Joe Snell of Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities didn't return a phone call before our deadline. Hutchison, however, was available to talk about poverty—a topic she deals with daily.

She lists a long list of local poverty causes, including high levels underemployment, record foreclosure rates and "massive cuts" by the Legislature in child-care and job-training assistance.

"We were seeing people who were struggling to get by before," Hutchison says, "but assistance cuts resulted in them being out on the street."

Other factors which contribute to Tucson's high poverty rate, Hutchison says, include a lack of affordable housing and health care, payday lenders and a city built around the automobile, not mass transit.

"Who are our employers?" Hutchison asks about Tucson's economy. "How many large employers do we have, and what industries have run Southern Arizona?"

Answering her own question, Hutchison stresses the vital role that construction once played before it collapsed in the economic downturn. Then she points out: "Tucson doesn't have a diverse economy."

While there are many components that play a part in Tucson's high poverty rate, Hutchison reiterates her central belief: "They're always connected back to policy," she says.

Even though the city's current poverty rate is probably now around 20 percent due to the current economic conditions, steps now being taken by the City Council could result in it being depicted as even higher in the future.

The federal definition of poverty is based on a formula established in 1962. It uses expenditures on food as a major component in defining household poverty. Concerned that this method may be under-reporting how many poor people actually live in Tucson, late last year, the City Council began exploring an alternative definition for poverty.

Earlier this week, the elected officials were scheduled to discuss the issue, one that Councilmember Karin Uhlich says is vital.

"I think it's important for the city to have factually based information, so we can understand how many people are struggling to meet basic needs," she says. "Do we have middle-class families who have been strengthened over time, or (are they) struggling?"

Uhlich also says a new definition for poverty could allow the City Council to more effectively target some of its social-service funds.

On the other hand, if this change is made, it will almost certainly depict an increase in Tucson's poverty level.

At the same time, the Census Bureau is preparing to canvas the nation early next year, asking questions about income along with many other topics.

Vest is reluctant to predict whether Tucson's poverty rate will be higher at the time of the 2010 Census than it was a decade ago, but he ultimately says: "I think it will go up, but we've seen perverse movements over time."

Hutchinson believes the real poverty rate in the nation is even higher than the Census Bureau recently reported, and she predicts the 2010 census will show Tucson's poverty rate to be at record levels.

"It will be higher than 20 percent," she predicts.