The Rich and the Poor

This holiday season, almost 15 percent of Pima County residents are living in poverty

This doesn't promise to be a joyous or prosperous holiday season for 64-year-old Karen Dolph. After a decade of financial and medical troubles, she is accustomed to that reality.

She moved to Tucson in 1993; within a few years, her husband had died, and she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Put on heavy-duty medications, she was also out of work.

"People weren't going to hire me," says Dolph, referring to fears about the morphine she was taking. "And if I told them, they'd fire me."

Because of that Catch-22 situation, the tailor by trade, who had also worked in phone solicitation, was unemployed. "I just had to tighten my belt," Dolph remembers.

Today, Dolph survives on $536 a month, most of which comes from Social Security and Veterans Affairs. She also does a little bit of sewing on the side to earn extra cash; her four children, who live on the East Coast, don't help her financially.

Dolph pays $400 a month in rent along with her utility bills. To eat, she uses food stamps, shopping monthly to maximize her savings. She also takes advantage of the surplus commodities program at the Community Food Bank to obtain staples such as cheese, macaroni and peanut butter.

"I'm living on what I have," says Dolph, who has no savings to fall back on. "I don't ask for much."

Earlier this year, Dolph was forced to come up with small individual copayments for her numerous medications after the federal Plan D prescription-drug plan came into effect. She had to delay paying her utility bills in order to afford the drugs, but the State of Arizona has now assumed the copays.

Dolph does have a cell phone; she watches her minutes extremely carefully. She also owns a vehicle, but if it had mechanical problems, she says: "Other than working at the swap meet (to raise cash), I couldn't fix it. It's hard."

Dolph is one of the tens of thousands of poor people living in Pima County that Congressman Raúl Grijalva doesn't want the general public to forget about. He believes that the community must acknowledge their existence before it can address the root causes of poverty.

At the end of August, Grijalva held a roundtable discussion on poverty, and said at that time: "People run away from the issue."

Added Tillie Arvizu of the social service agency Chicanos por la Causa: "Nothing seems to have changed in 25 years."

The U.S. Census Bureau released new statistics for Pima County a few months ago which show that almost 15 percent of the million people here live in poverty. More than 26 percent of children younger than 5 years of age are in that category, as are close to half of the female-headed households with children younger than 5.

Of the county's 365,000 total households, 105,000 earn less than $25,000 a year. At the other end of the economic spectrum, more than 16,000 Pima County households make more than $150,000 a year.

"How can we deal with this disparity?" Grijalva asked those at the August meeting. The most disturbing fact, he suggested, was public acceptance of 36 million Americans living in poverty.

"If these census trends continue," Grijalva said, "we'll create two (economic) communities in this state."

In an interview last week, Grijalva outlined a few of things he hopes will be accomplished by the new Democratic-controlled Congress to address poverty and its side effects.

"A minimum wage hike to $7.25 will pass," he predicts. Also possible is changing the Plan D prescription-medication plan to allow the federal government to negotiate lower drug prices, potentially saving taxpayers billions of dollars.

"It's a strong probability to pass," the 7th District Congressman says of the revisions to Plan D, "but the president won't sign it. If he wants to dig a bigger hole than he's already in, he'll veto it."

Other legislation Grijalva hopes Congress will consider includes addressing past funding reductions in the Community Development Block Grant program, looking at the "No Child Left Behind" school accountability program and reinstating educational Pell Grants.

At the local level, Grijalva believes community leaders must acknowledge the fact that there are thousands of people living in poverty here.

"We've tended to ignore poverty," he says, "because it's an uncomfortable issue with no quick solution. So we do charity things instead."

Praising these good works and what they contribute to the poor while also calling Tucson a compassionate community, Grijalva emphasizes: "Let's look at how to address the root causes of poverty and deal with them in a policy way."

Asked what Christmas gift he would like to give Tucson's poor, Grijalva reflects for a moment and then replies: "Not to be marginalized or forgotten. We need to say: 'You're part of us.' But I don't know how I'd wrap that present."

For her part, Dolph indicates she'll be doing very little for Christmas besides sending out cards. Despite that, she also has holiday greetings for Tucson.

"I hope everyone has a Merry Christmas," she says, "and things go better in the new year."

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