Poor Relations

By Molly McKasson and Dave Devine

MANY TUCSONANS WERE surprised to learn that after the booming 1980s, our community was 30 percent poorer. In 1990, the U.S. Census showed 112,000 people in Pima County living below the federal poverty level. Eighty thousand of them lived in the city, where in one decade the epidemic of poverty had grown from 14 percent to more than 20 percent of the population.

Perhaps the most shocking news was that children got hit the hardest in this downward spiral. More than one-quarter of Tucson's children under age 18 live in poor households. For families with children under age 5, the poverty rate quadrupled during the 1980s.

In 1990, Tucson had a poverty rate 40 percent higher than Phoenix and almost double the rate of Las Vegas. In fact, only two other major southwestern cities, El Paso and San Antonio, had poverty rates higher than Tucson's. Since 1990, the community's poor status as a poor town has changed very little.

These statistics come alive at the Community Food Bank's gigantic warehouse, 3003 S. Country Club Road. Of the thousands of parents in the Food Plus program there, more than one-half have jobs but just can't make enough to get by.

Punch Woods, Food Bank director, says, "When we started 18 years ago, we were providing in one year the same amount of food we are providing in one week today."

Among local community leaders there are differing opinions about why Tucson is so poor. Don Strauch, of Tucson Metropolitan Ministry, says, "Part of the reason our poverty keeps growing is related to the economy, and part of it is a moral issue. We have tax breaks and non-profit breaks which cause the rich to get richer and the poor poorer. We don't seem to have enough critical will to change this in our community."

The Rev. Manuel Moreno, Bishop of the Diocese of Tucson, believes "our poverty has something to do with the fact that we are close to the border, and also we are a transition point between east and west. People come here hoping to make it."

Brian Flagg, of the Casa Maria charity soup kitchen, points to the income disparity between different parts of town. "Apartheid is alive and well in Tucson," Flagg says. "Economic opportunities aren't going to the southside."

Tucson City Manager Luis Gutierrez attributes part of the blame for Tucson's high poverty rate on past economic development plans. He says the policy of trying to attract semi-conductor firms didn't succeed.

Hank Atha, the director of Pima County's Community Services Department, thinks one reason for the high poverty rate is that good-paying positions didn't replace the mining jobs of the past. Those middle-income opportunities were available to high-school graduates, even to those without a degree, Atha says. Today, those kinds of jobs no longer exist.

During the next three years, thousands of welfare families will be thrust into this low-income labor market because of welfare reform. The wage earners will be primarily women who'd been receiving federal Aid to Families with Dependent Children. Now those women are enrolled in GED classes and doing volunteer work under Arizona's welfare reform process. Soon, they'll have to be self-supporting.

But most of the jobs they'll find will be low-paying, if they can be found at all. Jim Webb, of the city's Community Service's Department, isn't hopeful for participants in his agency's Family Self-Sufficiency Program. He points out they'll have to find jobs paying at least $8 an hour to replace the benefits they're losing.

Realistically, in a low-wage town like Tucson, "the best they can hope to graduate to is working-poor status," Webb says.

That's very bad news--for individual families and for the community. It's painful to imagine 10,000 more people scrambling to get childcare and worried about medical services while living in neighborhoods where they fear for their children's lives. At the same time, those people will be working up to six days a week, still unable to make ends meet.

So is anyone doing anything about the low-wage state of our community?

In addition to the city's innovative Family Self-Sufficiency program, which is directed at federal Section 8 housing assistance recipients or residents of public housing units, several other programs are now in place to combat poverty. These include the state's Job Opportunity and Basic Skills (JOBS) program for welfare recipients, and Pima County's programs for job training for disadvantaged people, re-employment training and youth job programs.

The Greater Tucson Economic Council (GTEC) had developed a strategic plan for economic development in metropolitan Tucson and is seeking to implement its recommendations in hopes of raising wages (See "Work More, Earn Less!" Tucson Weekly, September 12, 1996). GTEC, as well as the University of Arizona, is out looking for high-tech, high-paying companies to locate here. But so is every other city in America.

City Manager Gutierrez wants to develop a strategic economic plan which directs GTEC to work more closely with the city. The city has also recently redirected its own economic development efforts to target impoverished groups and neighborhoods.

A new program aimed at reducing poverty is the Academy Without Walls project, which grew out of the deal to bring Microsoft to town. Still in its infancy, the idea is to pay academically worthy high-school juniors and seniors from needy families to intern at Microsoft and other businesses. Plans are to enroll 100 participants from five high schools this summer and then expand the program in future years.

At the same time, city government has potentially committed $780,000 to building a grocery store/training facility as part of an urban renewal project in Barrio Santa Rosa near downtown. This facility is intended to help a few hundred families living in public housing by training them to be grocery store clerks.

There are also numerous small but successful programs which deserve to be expanded. The Pueblo Gardens Credit Union is a unique neighborhood-based effort to help facilitate small loans to those with little capital. Another worthwhile but little known effort is the government-funded mini-micro loan program, which has filled an important niche in Tucson by giving small amounts of cash to mom-and-pop start-up businesses.

Will these programs and plans actually help? In the view of a group of women coming off welfare who are enrolled in a GED class at the El Pueblo Neighborhood Center, not much.

When asked what will happen after welfare reform is completed, they list issues ranging from an increase in robberies to more poor people giving up their children for adoption.

They also think there's only a slim chance they'll be able to find jobs that provide medical benefits. One woman says that if higher-paying jobs don't come to town, people will leave.

At a GED class at the El Rio Neighborhood Center, the participants think less than one-half of welfare mothers will be able to find work. Instead, one predicts, they'll turn to selling drugs and prostitution in order to make enough money to support their children. Another woman suggests some juvenile crime-fighting money should go toward youth training programs.

But welfare recipients are only a small fraction of the number of poor people in Tucson. The 10,000 welfare families are just the latest recruits in the rising tide of local poverty. What more would local leaders and social service providers like to see done to reduce the ominous numbers?

A common answer: More jobs are needed. But more low-paying jobs hardly seems like an adequate response to the problem. Another frequent response is that additional, affordable childcare facilities are required. Of course, people earning low wages will have a difficult time paying for childcare.

Panfilo Contreras, of the state Department of Economic Security, says, "We need to give breaks to those companies offering higher wages, insurance and career benefits. Are we going to subsidize corporations, or are we going to reduce food boxes?"

The Food Bankís Woods says, "We need to fund adult education and WIC more...We need to stop wooing companies to come here that pay poverty wages or have part-time employees without benefits."

Pima County's Atha agrees that more funding for job training is needed. He observes the budget for this program for disadvantaged people has been reduced by 50 percent in the last eight years.

The federal formula for determining funding amounts, Atha says, is based in large part on unemployment rates. Since Tucson has a low number of people who can't find work, but a very high number working low-paying jobs, the training budget isn't sufficient for the need.

Ray Clarke, director of the Tucson Urban League, takes a slightly different view of the issue. He says there are good minds both locally and at the state level who could come up with solutions. But, he warns, they'll have to put aside artificial differences--like party affiliations--and do what's best for the community. Together, Clarke believes, we can address the issue of poverty. But continued divisiveness will ensure that nothing happens.

While some of those interviewed are optimistic Tucson's poverty rate will decline in the next few years, most predict increasing misery. The DES' Contreras summarizes this pessimistic view: "If we continue with the same policies, we'll have more poverty and have to focus more of our resources to fight it. We'll see more crime as people struggle to survive."

The Urban League's Clarke agrees, saying, "The poverty rate will be higher in the year 2000 unless something drastic happens."

Jim Haag, co-chair of the Pima County Interfaith Council, adds, "To keep doing the same things and expecting different results is a definition of insanity. More violence and more social problems are inevitable, and the community needs to stop that from happening."

Meanwhile, the Pima County Board of Supervisors recently voted for a substantial cut in funding for GTEC. At the same time, the Tucson City Council seems to support every tourism-related proposal it receives, despite the fact that the resulting jobs tend toward the minimum-wage scale. Meanwhile, announcements that more jobs are coming to town, even if they're low-paying, get big headlines.

Six women coming off welfare enrolled in a GED class at the Liberty Adult Learning Center are discussing what should be done to decrease poverty in Tucson. Their advice to young people, they agree, is to stay in school and don't have children until after marrying and achieving financial security. But, they sadly admit, that message isn't getting out to today's kids.

The women also suggest increasing the minimum wage and doing something about Tucson's high rents. All of the women agree with one's assessment that "jobs should pay enough so people can live."

One woman, obviously not a dues-paying member of the Growth Lobby, adds, "Provide more money for job training. We don't need any more streets."

City Meetings

The Tucson City Council will hold a series of workshops this spring to develop a plan intended to create a prosperous and healthy city into the 21st century.

There will we forums held in each of the six city wards, plus a city-wide meeting. Community residents will be asked to develop quality-of-life indicators, as well as benchmarks by which to evaluate progress against the city's existing profile.

Call your city council member office for exact dates and locations of these meetings.

Fighting Poverty

THE PIMA COUNTY Interfaith Council is planning an economic summit later this month to ask poor people and community leaders to discuss PCIC's proposed Family Development Fund.

PCIC, composed of numerous churches and social service programs throughout the city, intends to use the summit to review and revise its proposal and then move toward putting its ideas to work combating poverty and low wages.

In addition to local elected officials, PCIC has invited state and federal government representatives and local business people, including builder Bill Estes, car dealer/banker Jim Click and land speculator Don Diamond. But what will make this meeting different, PCIC leaders insist, is that poor people will have a seat at the table and participate in the discussion.

The focus of the two sessions will be on the Family Development Fund. It's intended to be a series of scholarships and incentives designed to move families and individuals currently unemployed or in low-wage jobs into jobs paying between $8 and $12 an hour, according to PCIC officials.

Under the group's plan, organizations would contribute up to $10 million over an unspecified period of time. This money would be used to provide education, job-training assistance, childcare and program administration beginning later this year.

Participants in the program's three phases--remediation, literacy and job training--will be asked to donate hundreds of hours of service to the community in addition to the program's other requirements.

PCIC officials estimate the average cost for each person aided by the program could be $10,000, thus limiting the total number of participants to 1,000.

Potential problems for the proposal are several:

First, securing large numbers of jobs paying $8 to $12 an hour here will be very difficult. The average wage for graduates of the state's JOBS program, which is designed for people leaving welfare, is less than $6 an hour.

Secondly, PCIC has a reputation for working only with "our families" and excluding others. Officials of the group claim they'll allow anyone to participate, but an organization based primarily on church members will be viewed with suspicion by many.

Finally, the group's sketchy poverty-fighting idea appears in several ways to be very similar to other programs which are already under way in Tucson. Those programs, operated by long-established and under-funded organizations and agencies, should also be given a chance to compete for additional government money.

While recognizing that the Family Development Fund won't solve all of Tucson's poverty problems, PCIC Co-chair Jim Haag believes it's a start.

The Bottoms Up Economic Summit will be held from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., Friday February 28 and Saturday, March 1, in Room A of the El Pueblo Neighborhood Center, 101 W. Irvington Road. TW

Image Map - Alternate Text is at bottom of Page

Tucson Weekly's New User Page
Tucson Weekly Staff Page
Tucson Weekly Archives

 Page Back  Last Week  Current Week  Next Week  Page Forward

Home | Currents | City Week | Music | Review | Cinema | Back Page | Forums | Search

Weekly Wire    © 1995-97 Tucson Weekly . Info Booth