Off-The-Charts Poor

The poverty rate in Tucson and Pima County continues to skyrocket—and the prognosis for change remains grim

If poverty were a disease, Pima County officials would have declared an epidemic by now.

In the past few years, local poverty has literally gone off of a chart compiled by the Pima Association of Governments. Yet elected officials, other local leaders and the media do not appear interested in the fact that Tucson recently eclipsed El Paso as the poorest major city in the Sunbelt.

The epidemic of poverty doesn't seem to be a priority for either city or county government. We often hear about the proposed Rosemont Mine and the Rio Nuevo redevelopment district, but rarely do officials talk about the fact that 200,000 Pima County residents, or one in five, get by (or try to get by) on incomes below the federal poverty rate. For an individual, that translates to less than $10,890 annually, and $22,350 for a family of four.

Whether the increase in poverty is the result of a lack of job-training, reduced education funding, or something else, there is little discussion about trying to change the harsh reality that almost one in every four Tucson residents is currently living below the poverty line.

If a healthy economy is about a community's collective capacity for productivity, how can Pima County prosper when so many of us are suffering from the debilitating social conditions imposed by poverty?

Figure 1 dismisses the notion that the local spike in poverty is due to the current recession. The city of Tucson has been ahead of the national poverty curve for decades.

Yet 15 years ago, when now-Mayor Bob Walkup was chair of the Greater Tucson Economic Council, he told the Weekly that the local economy showed signs of creating higher-paying jobs (See "Work More, Earn Less," Sept. 12, 1996). He pointed to the relocation of more Hughes (Raytheon) employees and increased competition among teleservice companies as proof that the community was headed in the right direction.

Those higher-paying jobs never significantly materialized. Statistics from the UA Eller College of Management make it clear: When adjusted for inflation, there has been "no real increase in (Pima County) earnings in 39 years."

In the 1996 Weekly article, Walkup declared that he was confident the economic corner had "already been turned." He later went on to win three terms as mayor of Tucson, with his first election coming in 1999, when he defeated Molly McKasson.

Walkup did not respond to requests to comment for this article.

Looking back, it's clear that the local economy did, indeed, turn a corner in the mid-'90s—but we were going in the wrong direction.

Inside the city limits, the percentage of people living below the federal poverty level went from 18 percent in 1995 to 23.4 percent in 2009 (the latest year for which figures are available). That's an increase of almost one-third.

In Pima County, things were was only a little better: The county rate went from 16.9 to 19.3 percent, an increase of 14 percent. As a result, Pima County today is one of the poorest urban areas in the Southwest.

The city of Tucson has an even more dubious distinction: It has the highest percentage of people living below the federal poverty line of any of the cities shown in Figure 2.

At 9:45 a.m., Casa Maria on East 26th Street is already packed. Brian Flagg is passing out free meals and food bags, one after another.

Flagg is startled to hear about the dramatic increase in Tucson's poverty rate. "I had no idea," he admits. On an average day, he says, Casa Maria provides about 600 meals and distributes food bags to around 200 families.

Within minutes, a dozen or so people enrolled at the nearby Sullivan Jackson Employment Center arrive at Casa Maria to pick up lunches. Neatly dressed in clothes that would be worn to a job interview, the people in the group range in age from around 20 to near 60.

"Poverty sucks!" exclaims Terri, 56. She and her husband recently moved to Tucson because of a job offer—which fell through.

Terri says that until two years ago, they were well-off financially, but then her husband had an accident. For the last five weeks, the couple has been living in a shelter.

"You never know what will hit you," Terri says.

Also in line is Angelina, a young Tucson native. "I worked as a cashier and hostess in a restaurant when I dropped out of high school," she says. "But I (eventually) got my GED."

Laid off from her last job in 2008, Angelina has been unemployed ever since. She's at the employment center now and states: "There are job openings out there, and with my new skills, I have a better chance of at least being seen."

That youthful optimism ignores the large number of high school graduates now looking for entry-level jobs, as well as the harsh reality of the percentage of local people living in poverty.

But why is poverty worse in Tucson and Pima County than it is on the state, regional and national levels?

"We're in a growth economy," observes Peggy Hutchison, the executive director of the Primavera Foundation, a nonprofit organization that has almost 9,000 poor clients. "We're in a deep hole now and reaping the benefits of failed policies."

Hutchison believes government policies at every level have increased Tucson's escalating poverty. But state and federal actions, in her opinion, have had by far the largest impact.

"The poor are victims of the economic policies and priorities of this nation," Hutchison states. "These are clear decisions. We do not want to invest in senior citizens; we want to reduce the pensions of working people; and we don't want to invest in job-training or health care.

"Health-care is huge in pushing people into poverty," Hutchison continues. "Not only the premiums, but when those without insurance have a health crisis, they can't pay the rent, and then the (situation) snowballs."

Hutchison also includes the housing collapse on her list of poverty causes.

"The foreclosure crisis is affecting middle-income people," she says. "Now we're seeing more people who have lost both house and job."

When asked what we might do locally to stem the rising tide of poverty, Hutchison suggests that we need to rethink our dependence on population growth. "We don't have a diversified economy, but are too reliant on real estate and construction," she indicates.

Sam Stone, communications director for the Pima County Republican Party, has somewhat similar thoughts.

"There just aren't many good-paying jobs (in Tucson)," he points out. "When housing crashed, it took many of them with it. We went from boom to bust."

Stone says that if the community returns to the same old ways, little will be done to slow the increase in poverty. "It's unfortunate, but there are two Tucsons," Stone says. "One is the retirees, and (the other) is the service industry that supports them. There are few middle-class people, and that doesn't promote economic growth."

Democratic Pima County Supervisor Richard Elías agrees that just bringing more people into Pima County will not solve our economic woes.

"We have more retired people here," he says, "and often, they're not interested in investing in youth and families. They're not as interested in the well-being of the community."

Elías adds that the loss of construction jobs, the lack of overall employment opportunities, and the "boom and bust" aspects of Tucson's economy are other reasons for the rise in local poverty.

As far as permanent large employers in Tucson, Elías points to two: The UA, and defense-related industries—and the latter, he says, has its own "boom and bust" cycle.

"There's a long tradition of living here—4,000 years," Elías says, musing on how we might break free of the "boom and bust" trend. "But we've never found a pathway to a sustainable economy. ... We've never had a plan to create long-term jobs here outside of home-building."

Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities (TREO) is the organization whose mission it is to bring in new, high-paying jobs and help stimulate the local economy. Some people blame TREO for not changing the economic landscape.

Frances McLane Merryman thinks that blame is misplaced. She is the vice president of the Wealth Strategies Group for the Northern Trust, NA, and she serves on the board of directors for TREO. She has a different perspective on Tucson's inability to grow a more prosperous economy.

"The very glaring part about our poverty in Tucson," Merryman insists, "has to do with education and our education levels in Tucson. ... All the statistics show that the less education you have, the more poverty you have."

As an example of the education gap, Merryman cites a large local employer currently trying to hire 150 people for high-paying jobs. "They can't find qualified people here, because we're not keeping up with the ever-changing demands of their technology."

Merryman believes we have to change the way we do business in Tucson if we're serious about creating a better economy for all.

"Our business policies," Merryman says of past economic development efforts, "have been based on selling a house and a car to the next person who moves here. That will not work."

Phyllis is a 57-year-old Tucson native and mother of five. She graduated from the UA in 1975 and for years worked from home while raising her family.

Employed by Arizona Mail Order starting in 1997, Phyllis was promoted three times and by 2009 was making almost $60,000 per year. Because of the economic downturn, she got laid off in June of last year.

With four people now in her household, Phyllis and her family are part of Tucson's population living below the federal poverty level. She and her husband have drained their savings.

"It's been a rough year," Phyllis says. "We cut back on everything."

Those reductions include home and vehicle maintenance—and even what they eat. "There's been lots of chicken," Phyllis says.

The couple has also reduced their outdoor watering, has raised the thermostat during the winter, and has a house that's 85 degrees inside during the summer.

But despite those changes, Phyllis is upbeat about the future. She quickly exclaims of her life: "I'm very blessed."

Phyllis does collect $240 per week in unemployment insurance. After a traumatic medical experience, she also enrolled in AHCCCS, the state's health insurance program for the poor.

Having researched the job market, Phyllis decided to seek job-training as a paralegal through Pima County's ONESTOP Career Center. "I've been applying for bazillions of jobs," she states, "but the job market is (almost) nonexistent. ... Finding a job is a full-time job."

Some time ago, Phyllis applied for a $27,000-per-year job with the city court. One hundred qualified applications were received for seven positions, she says, and 36 were eventually interviewed. Although Phyllis was on that list, she wasn't offered a job.

"Poverty is a hard reality," Phyllis says. "I have much more appreciation now of others with no money."

During the last 12 months, things have changed dramatically for Phyllis—and she knows she needs to change, too.

"People have to recognize that they can't keep doing things the same way. I have to recognize I have to start over. That will be hard, but that's what it's going to take."

Many fingers point to the historic "boom and bust" economy of Tucson as a prime reason for the growth in local poverty. But going forward, what are the community's viable alternatives?

Sam Stone of the county GOP suggests one option: "We need to start talking about what others have done who've been successful," he says.

Stone points to Austin, Texas, as an example. "Austin pushed hard 15 years ago to improve its high-tech (sector)," Stone says, "and now they have tons of good jobs with high wages. That's something Tucson needs to be looking at."

Wendell Long, CEO of Sol Casinos and the current board chairman of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, sees things a little differently. He thinks the answer instead is small-business job growth.

"A strong business climate is needed," Long says. "We need to support businesses and (business) incubators while having a more business-friendly climate. ... We really need job creation here to lower the poverty level."

Frances McLane Merryman of TREO remains adamant that better education is the key to reducing local poverty.

"Education is the driver," Merryman declares. "When it comes to fighting poverty, education is the No. 1 most important thing to improve."

Merryman hopes others share her view. "We have new leaders in the business community who understand the importance of education," she says. "That is the direction that will help reduce our poverty rate."

On the other hand, Brian Flagg at Casa Maria holds local elected officials responsible for turning the sinking poverty ship around.

"We need leadership from the City Council, county government, and the non-brain-dead legislators," he declares. "They must provide leadership."

Peggy Hutchison of Primavera is doubtful that city and county officials alone have the resources to stem the rising tide of local poverty.

"We need to have a multi-party, multi-asset approach that makes sure what we're doing is making a difference," she suggests. "We should be working in new and different ways."

Specifically, Hutchison targets the nation's leadership. "We need politicians to make policy decisions that prioritize investment in working people. It's not working to just focus on a war economy. ... If the policies don't change, I'm not sure how poverty will go down."

To combat poverty in Tucson, Hutchison adds: "Arizona and Pima County need economic diversity."

Hutchison is hopeful the community is ready for such a change. "Tucson is a caring place that values multiculturalism and is very generous," she stresses. "People don't want Tucson to be poor."

Yet Hutchison acknowledges how daunting such an undertaking would be to achieve. "It's like filling a bucket with holes in it," she says. "We're not catching up. We can't change poverty if people don't have jobs, adequate education and job-training."

Supervisor Richard Elías agrees that Tucson's economic future will not improve as long as Arizona politicians maintain their dismal record on educational spending. "Nobody has a magic pill that is going to fix this thing," he states.

Elías predicts, however, that eventually things will rebound. An important part of that turnaround must address what he describes as the "economic deprivation in communities of color." In his opinion, cultural diversity will need to be an essential part of future local economic-development efforts.

At the same time, Elías laments the fact that Tucson has lost events, such as spring training baseball, that bring us together as a community. "We need to find a way to replace the amenities we've lost," he suggests. "We need to rebuild those activities that bring memories of good times shared with other people."

As far as specific economic policy changes, Elías wants to see the Tucson area expand both its alternative-energy production and its environmental tourism. He'd additionally like to find ways to improve trade relations with Mexico, and agrees with those who have been pushing for years to gain improved north-south transportation routes across the state.

"We may be on the losing side of things right now," Elías admits, "but I don't believe we can't fix things. ... We sit in a wonderful place, an important place for transportation, in close proximity to the border, and with a beautiful environment. If you believe in boom and bust, it's going to come back, and I hope we've learned our lessons (from the past)."

Anthony is a 24-year-old Tucson native who works at a local movie theater and is about to complete his associate degree at Pima Community College. While taking classes, he hasn't always been able to work full-time, which has taught him some hard lessons about money.

"Being poor is tough," Anthony declares. He considers himself luckier than most, though, because he has received some help from his family.

"You pretty much have to work all the time," Anthony remarks. "A lot of jobs make it hard to go to school. You certainly can't afford to go on an unpaid vacation. That would be like throwing money down the toilet."

Anthony will be moving to Los Angeles in the fall to finish school and pursue a screenwriting career. He explains that most of his Tucson friends have college degrees—and still work multiple jobs to get by.

"I don't think of myself as poor," Anthony says. "I know what I want to do, and I have the energy to try to reach that goal."

Anthony has a lot of sympathy for the many people who are forced to live paycheck to paycheck. "That's a really terrible, never-ending cycle," he says, adding that it's his intention to end up in a different situation.

While real change may be needed to address the skyrocketing increase in local poverty, the legislative majority at the state capitol in Phoenix continues to cut funding for health care, education and even unemployment insurance. Terri, Angelina, Phyllis and thousands more in Pima County continue to look for work, and struggle to get by. Meanwhile, large numbers of educated young adults, like Anthony, leave Tucson in order to pursue their careers.

No one wants to imagine what the city of Tucson and metropolitan Pima County will be like if the poverty rate continues to rise at the current rate. Yet short of finding the collective will to shift the economic direction of the community, there appears to be little to stop us from continuing in the same very unnerving direction.