Work More, Earn Less!

THE 1960S, WHEN many of the Baby Boomers graduated from high school, were a golden age for working families in Tucson. As the graduates headed off to college or a career, they were recipients of a great optimism: Work hard and The Dream will be yours.

Their parents sacrificed for them, and their local leaders nurtured a Big Plan to secure their community's future: Keep building new homes...Keep selling things to new arrivals...Keep Davis-Monthan Air Force Base open...Keep winter tourists coming from the Midwest so they'll eventually pack up and move here...Keep your fingers crossed.

In those days Tucson had a solid middle class. Home ownership was the norm if Dad had a steady job. Rich and poor alike were given tremendous attention at Tucson high schools. The Cold War was very good to families with members working at Hughes. Many graduates took over family businesses. Almost all of them did better than their parents.

But something went wrong. As the figures show, starting in the early 1970s, incomes in Tucson started to drop (See box). They kept dropping through good times and bad, until they reached a point a few years ago where tens of thousands of hard-working households in Tucson simply couldn't make ends meet.

Between 1980 and 1990, the fall in wage rates was dramatic. Many neighborhoods in the city were destabilized by the huge drop in owner-occupied homes. The center of town changed as poverty spread north and east. The social problems in these neighborhoods increased as the income levels fell.

THIS YEAR'S LOCAL high school graduating classes face a different world. There's no economic security for hard-working kids. Life in this community looks pretty bleak for at least half of them, and that's not even counting the one-third who dropped out of school.

The decreasing wages and growing poverty, coupled with Pima County's dramatic increase in child abuse, Domestic Violence, teen pregnancy and youth violence, confirm beyond a doubt what many have long feared: The Big Plan has failed.

It has failed to create sustainable economic opportunity or preserve our quality of life. Looking back, it appears to have been less a grand design for building a healthy community and more a scheme for a privileged few to make quick money while land prices were down.

So now what do we do? Today's high school students shrug their shoulders and blame bickering politicians and greedy developers.

Image Challenge them to do better than that; they tell you how many of their friends carry guns for protection. Argue they must keep their hopes up, get more education and avoid cynicism; they tell you about working-poor parents who pay a third or more of their minimum-wage earnings for rent, who don't qualify for health care, who drink or use drugs in ever-increasing numbers.

Of course, no one expects teenagers to turn this ship around, or keep it from sinking. We do expect our local leadership to be hard at the job. Unfortunately, up until recently, most of those folks had done little to create an economy that's strong on family and household income.

In the face of increasing hardship, some local leaders have become constant advocates for more social services. Others have supported enterprise zones and better training programs. But if our economic development efforts continue to create minimum-wage jobs, we're just spitting in the ocean.

Part of the reason for the inaction is that it's damn hard to change business as usual. The other part, for some, is that initially the increase in poverty and working poor families was confined to the traditionally low-income areas of town. But all of that changed several years ago.

Working poor households within the city limits became a painfully visible part of our community in the 1980s. About the same time, there was a quantum leap in the rate of murder and violence among Tucson's teens.

That's when the light went on for some local leaders. They didn't need U.S. Census Bureau maps to locate poverty and working-poor families, they just had to follow the graffiti all over town. It didn't take a genius to notice poverty was working its way north and east.

Pin has worked for 18 months as a dishwasher at a downtown restaurant. He earns $5 an hour for his full-time job, which includes medical insurance benefits.

He lives less than a mile from where he works, so Pin walks or skateboards to his job. He shares an apartment with his brother, and they pay $475 a month, plus utilities, in rent.

At 25, Pin has ambitions to learn how to fix the machinery he works with instead of washing dishes with it. He graduated from high school and attended Pima Community College for one year and has hopes of returning.

Pin has lived in Tucson since 1980. The word "Poverty" is tattooed on his neck, indicating his membership in the "Poverty Posse" at Sabino High School, the group that didn't drive new cars to school.

In his spare time, he likes to drink cheap beer and play in a band. If he could, he says, he'd drink Bass, but he can't afford it.

He has no savings, no credit cards and pays bills in cash. He believes he could probably eat better if he quit his job and applied for food stamps, but he doesn't want to do that.

POVERTY AMONG THE working class continues to gnaw away at our community. But at least now people are talking about addressing the problem. Plus, temporarily, wages have gone up and may continue to do so. However, the rate of that growth, if it is to occur, will depend upon a number of factors. Some are beyond our control. Others depend on the major players who influence economic development in Tucson.

The Greater Tucson Economic Council (GTEC) recently released its long awaited "Greater Tucson Strategic Economic Plan." It outlines what the organization sees as the basic needs to improve the economic standards of the community. The issue of low wages played an important role in the document.

While admitting the local economy creates service sector and other low-paying jobs much faster than others, the plan stresses the need to continue past programs and policies. Through its use of attracting specific "clusters" of employers to town, GTEC hopes to offset the customary high rate of job creation in low-paying sectors of Tucson's economy.

Image Robert Walkup, GTEC chairman, believes the economic corner has already been turned. He said a broad change occurred in the local economy in the last few years, thanks in part to the relocation of Hughes employees. He added the increased competition among teleservice companies to keep their trained employees has driven up wages in that sector.

Within the next four years, Walkup predicts, real wages in Tucson should be higher than they were in 1990.

Marshall Vest, director of the University of Arizona's Forecasting Project in the College of Business and Public Administration, agrees that local wage rates should continue to climb through the end of the century. This may occur at about the rate of inflation, or even higher, resulting in no real gain for workers, he said. Vest attributes this rise mostly to a change in demographics. Fewer people are entering the labor force and, therefore, competition for employees will force wages up.

In his "Economic Outlook" for 1996/'97, Vest predicted about 8,200 jobs will be created in the Tucson metropolitan area during the year. Of these, he writes, "Most of the new jobs will be in the services sector (which will expand by nearly 5,000). Trade (2,000 jobs) and government (1,000) will account for most of the remaining new jobs. All other sectors will grow very little, if at all."

Ben Buehler-Garcia, senior vice-president of Tucson's Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, believes cooperation among economic development groups is essential to achieve increasing wage rates. Although the Chamber aggressively opposed the local and statewide initiatives that would have increased the minimum wage, he thinks the goal of increasing average salaries is vital and that the Tucson business community understands its importance. He also stresses the importance of teamwork, noting "finger pointing won't lead to solutions."

Jaime Gibbons, president of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, agrees. He also believes it's the responsibility of employers--and not elected officials--to achieve the goal of higher wages. The government, he said, should provide a level playing field and then let the private sector address the problem.

These calls for teamwork and togetherness, however, overlook the depressing reality of the past 25 years. Cooperation is a laudable goal, but probably the only way to return to the wage levels Tucson enjoyed in the 1960s is through a radical shift in our economic development goals.

To do that would require trying to slow down the growth of service sector jobs, a strategy not even mentioned in the GTEC document. At the same time, more emphasis would need to be placed on increasing the number of higher-paying jobs. This change would require a reallocation of financial resources away from present government subsidies for the housing and tourism industries--a sensitive subject rarely discussed by most local politicians.

For more than a decade, city leaders have placed more emphasis on tourism and service sector employment than they have on creating higher-paying jobs (See box). And, unfortunately, Tucson has gotten just what it paid for.

This trend shows no signs of ending, which means most new jobs created in Tucson's economy will be in the low-paying sectors. So much for the optimism that local wages will increase much above the rate of inflation.

Image After serving in the military for 20 years, Dale moved to Tucson six years ago because he has relatives here. He searched almost two years for a job his technical training in the service had qualified him for, until he finally found his current ad-services specialist position.

At 47, he drives a 20-year-old car and lives in a rented mobile home, for which he pays $275 a month. In his spare time, he reads, watches videos, and cruises the Internet.

Dale's take-home income is $13,000 a year. He also receives $300 a month in tax-free disability pay from the military. He has limited savings--so little, he says, that if he lost his job he would probably become homeless.

His medical insurance is provided through the Veterans Administration. He still has two credit cards from when he was earning almost twice as much in the military, but other companies have turned him down since he left the service.

He's able to take a trip to see relatives in Florida every couple of years, and he's satisfied with his job because it provides him with enough income to pay his bills and to buy a few "toys," like his computer. But, he added, he was willing to give up some of the things others want in order to do that. He tries to give money to charity, even if only small amounts.

THE IMPORTANCE OF the wage-rate problem has at least become apparent to some local elected officials. In February the Tucson City Council decided to hold a series of study sessions on the issue of reducing poverty in Tucson. So far however, these meetings have not even been scheduled.

In the coming months one would hope more and more discussions will take place about how to increase wage rates significantly while reducing poverty in Tucson. Perhaps some of the ideas listed here might find their way into the discussion.

Feel free to add your own ideas. Send them to the Tucson Weekly, P.O. Box 2429, Tucson AZ 85702.

Anonymous works 30 hours a week for a major employer in town. She asked that her name not be used for this article.

She was a single mother supporting several children until they left home a few years ago. She worked a full-time job during the week and two part-time jobs on the weekend to do that. She did it for three years after moving to Tucson in 1988.

Now 52, she has a bachelor's degree and takes home $650 a month from her job. She drives a 1985 model car, has one credit card, and tries to visit her family in Florida once a year. She takes the train to save on expenses.

She rents a house near her job and splits the $700 a month cost with a roommate. She does this in part because it enables her to walk to work most of the time. She also pays one-half of the utility bills for the home.

Her job provides her with health insurance and a mandatory retirement program. But other than that she has no savings. For entertainment she attends free concerts or visits with friends.

She's paying off a student loan for herself and trying to help her children with their educational expenses.

Anonymous is taking graduate courses and hopes to finish in December. When she does, she plans to look for a job in her field. TW

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