Poverty In Tucson Field Workshop Reveals “Resilient” People

At a recent meeting of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, a woman told a heartbreaking story as she urged the supervisors to reject a proposal, put forth by Pima County administrator Chuck Huckelberry, to charge Tucsonans a forfeiture fee.

At the May 19 meeting, the woman told the supervisors that she had to voluntarily forfeit her pets due to her inability to meet the costs of regular care. She did not want other pets owners to suffer her same fate.

Just days before, on May 15, according to a University of Arizona press release, more than 100 community members, city officials and nonprofit organizers turned out to hear University of Arizona students from the Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop present the results of their semester-long efforts to collect data from low-income households across Tucson.

Pima County has the highest property taxes in the state. Over seven weeks, the students knocked on 2,000 doors and completed 257 surveys in eight neighborhoods designated by the census as having high poverty rates. More than half their sample lived in “extreme poverty,” which means an income of less than half the poverty threshold.

The leading source of struggle for respondents was housing costs.

Pima County, the fifth poorest metropolitan areas in the country, has one of the highest, if not the highest property tax rates in the state.

The Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop results were presented at a community forum at Habitat for Humanity.

“Tucson has a high and unfortunately persistent problem with poverty, with about 25 percent of our city population living below the poverty threshold,” said Brian Mayer, associate professor in the UA School of Sociology, who teaches the workshop course along with sociology graduate student Julia Smith. Mayer is also a fellow in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice.

During the forum, Mayer gave a short summary presentation, and groups of students explained posters representing their findings.

“A lot of the people in our sample were working full time or part time. Also, a large number were fairly well educated,” Mayer said. “One thing we talked about in class was the myth of the unemployed welfare recipient, that most people are just at home living off the government.”

“When we asked people to prioritize their expenses, if No. 1 was rent, food was very rarely in the top five,” Mayer said. “It says we are doing a pretty good job with food assistance.”

Even so, about one-third of the extreme poor were regularly skipping meals.

Several students commented about how impressed they were by the resourcefulness of the people with whom they spoke.

“I was surprised by how resilient people were,” said Sarah Schwartz, a student researcher. “People were really struggling, but they were happy and doing what they could.”

The problem is that there is very little to do. The County and City of Tucson governments make it nearly impossible to start-up new enterprises. Hence there are few opportunities to ascend from Pima County poverty. Still, people are happy doing what they do because the surroundings are beautiful.

That is not enough for the many people who are leaving the area to head north. As they move, they find that rents are higher in the Phoenix area, but the Average Monthly Disposable Salary (After Tax) is $3,044.09 in Phoenix as compared to $2,400.00 in Tucson.

Pima County’s population continues to decline and Maricopa and Pinal continue to grow.

While the woman, who addressed the supervisors about the loss of her beloved pets, is not aware of the nexus between the cost of owning or renting in Pima County and her inability to afford her pets, the connection is clear.

One woman did draw the connection last year. She came before the Board in October 2014, and urged the supervisors to stop raising property taxes. She told the Board, “Over the many years my family lived in Pima County the property taxes we have paid totals five times what it cost us to build our home. Every year I go before the so-called Board of Equalization to challenge how the assessor has valued our home – trying desperately to keep down taxes so I can continue to live in my home.”

“But you keep wanting to buy property to someday build soccer fields on and fancy public buildings that go two or three times over budget, and you don’t plan for maintenance costs, there is a new plan for super-dooper high class no kill animal facility and take your bombastic pride increasing taxes on the poor and those on fixed incomes,” she continued.

“You delight in grinding the faces of the poor into the dirt,” she said. “Just this year, my property taxes have gone up over $175, which represents a month’s worth of groceries for me that I must do without, and next year it will be two more months’ of groceries.”

“Then I’ll have to figure out how to do without,” she said.

And figuring out how to do without is exactly what is happening. What is more revealing is that they are surviving with little or no use of the government’s safety net.

The researchers were surprised to discover they found that the percentage of interviewees who were not using government or charitable assistance was astonishingly high. Almost 25 percent of those living in extreme poverty did not use government assistance. The main government support used by respondents was SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.

Researchers found that among the extreme poor, more than half reported never receiving any type of nonprofit or charitable funding.

“I am not secure my property. At any moment my ability to pay the taxes on my property will be taken away by inflation, sickness, family emergency, or the next time you folks decide to go further into debt by raising my property taxes,” the woman told the supervisors. “You were out of touch with reality, tone deaf to how your policies affect the poor and the middle class, and businesses in Pima County.”

Instead of relying on government, they have been propping it up.

The question now becomes whether the “leaders” will begin making truly “equitable” decisions based on the researchers’ findings and anecdotal evidence? It all depends on what the Democrat-controlled Board of Supervisors’s definition of social justice is. As it stands, social justice in Pima County means to raise taxes on the poor to buy useless land from cronies.

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