By Nels Bergeron
One in 4 people in Tucson lives in poverty. That’s 151,000 people.
Although the U.S. is among the richest countries in the world, nearly 40 million people live under the poverty line. The national poverty rate is 13.9 percent.
America sits 35th on the list among developed countries in poverty rate, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, a Paris-based think tank.
Unlike most developed countries, the U.S. has failed to provide policies and programs that are designed to reduce or prevent poverty. The U.S. is often referred to as a reluctant welfare state.
Several countries in the European Union such as Finland and Denmark pay considerably higher taxes than the U.S. to fund various social insurance programs that prevent families and individuals from falling into poverty.
The average percent of people in the EU living below the poverty line is 9.8 percent. It is important to note that the poverty line differs between each country in the EU.
“Societies make collective choices about how to divide their resources,” wrote David Brady, a sociology professor at University of California, Riverside, in his book “Rich Democracies, Poor People.” “Where poverty is low, equality has been institutionalized. Where poverty is widespread, as most visibly demonstrated by the United States, there has been a failure to institutionalize equality.”
Over a million people in Arizona experience poverty today. That’s one in seven Arizonans. Arizona has the fifth highest poverty rate in the country at about 18 percent, according to recent U.S. Census data.
“Our state has systematically and progressively invested so much less in the things that mitigate, prevent, address and deal with poverty,” said Eric Schindler, president and CEO of Child and Family Resources in Tucson. “So, you get what you pay for and reap what you sow.”
Arizona improved its poverty rate over the past decade, but is still grappled by the impact of the Great Recession. Last year, 88,529 Arizonans climbed out of poverty, according to recent U.S. Census data.
“More and more folks are working, but the wages are not yet keeping up with what is needed to support a family or an individual who is working full time,” said Cynthia Zwick, executive director of Arizona Community Action Association, now known as Wildfire. “Forty-nine percent of jobs here pay less than $15 an hour. Many jobs are paying the minimum wage.”
Arizona’s minimum wage is $10.50 per hour while the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.
So, why does Tucson have a relatively higher poverty rate — 25.1 percent, according to July 2017 census figures — than the state and the rest of the nation?
“That’s a hard question to answer,” said Bonnie Bazata, coordinator for the Pima County Ending Poverty Now program. “Historically, Tucson has had higher poverty rates.”
Sources of poverty are hard to pinpoint. In Tucson, racial inequality, poor health, a lack of affordable housing, a deprived education system and limited job opportunities generally silhouette the economic obstacle.
“Each person living in poverty has a different story, living under different pressures,” said Bazata. “Somebody might be dealing with a low-wage job, a health issue, substance abuse or domestic violence. There’s not one strategy that’s going to solve the problem.”
Race plays a decisive role in the complex issue of poverty in Tucson.
There is a sharp economic divide between the white population and people of color in Tucson.
Tucson follows the trend of the nation: two Americas. One is white and the other is of color. Non-whites have high-poverty rates whereas whites experience relatively low-poverty rates.
Only 18 percent of Caucasians live under the poverty threshold, while 30 percent of Hispanics, 32 percent of African Americans and 37 percent of Native Americans face poverty in Tucson.
Tucson’s poverty averages in every cohort of race is higher than the state and the nation.
In Arizona, 10 percent of Caucasians, 23 percent of Hispanics and 25 percent of African-Americans live in poverty, according to recent U.S. census data. In the U.S., 9 percent of Caucasians, 20 percent of Hispanics and 22 percent of African-Americans experience poverty, according to recent U.S. census data.
“I just a read a statistic that in Boston if you’re a white family your net worth is about a quarter of a million dollars,” Bazata said. “If you’re an African-American family it is eight dollars. We see this divide throughout the country.”
She said race is an imperative lens to look through when looking a poverty.
“The reality of today is that people of color are disproportionately poorer,” Schindler said. “People of color don’t have the same opportunities. If you want to be fair, strategies to address poverty ought to help them first, but we don’t.”
Poverty is a cause and consequence of poor health. Poverty raises the odds of poor health and poor health subsequently traps people in poverty, Bazata said.
“Poverty grinds down people’s health,” Bazata said. “If you don’t have the funds and wait for something to be crisis or chronic before you deal with it, it becomes extremely expensive to pay for it at that point.”
Affordable housing is the most critical aspect of poverty in Tucson, Bazata said.
Last year, a sociology class at University of Arizona conducted a 250-home survey and found that 68 percent of the poorest households and 92 percent of those at the poverty line spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing.
Roughly 53 percent of Tucsonans are renters. The national average is about 31 percent, according to recent U.S. census data. As the housing market in Arizona grows due to the mounting economy and property values rising, so do rent costs.
“It’s really hard to keep a job and keep your kids healthy if you don’t have stable housing,” Bazata said. “It tips your whole family over into crisis. It’s like a bomb going off.”
Living on a minimum-wage job is difficult to stretch across all of one’s needs. Over half of all Americans don’t have $500 in savings. There’s no Plan B if something falls apart.
“Wages are so much lower here than other parts of the country,” said Schindler. “There’s fewer good jobs available. We don’t have the same number of big businesses and corporations and higher paying jobs.”
Post-recession, 95 percent of jobs went to people with college degrees or some college education, according to the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University.
“A part of my job is to look why it’s harder to keep a job than get a job,” Bazata said. “You can get a job, but all of the pieces that need to work in order to keep it whether its health or your car running or your kids not getting sick has a large impact. It’s easy to fall off the rails, especially when struggling financially.”
Schindler said one of the biggest connections between poverty and escaping poverty is access to affordable preschool and childcare. He said only one in five kids goes to a decent pre-school in Tucson. “You’re dooming the next generation to not graduate and be successful,” Schindler said.
“For today, all these working parents who don’t have a safe, affordable place to help their children get good care and education,” said Schindler. “So if you have to work at a minimum or medium wage job, you don’t have enough money to pay for childcare. Other states provide a whole lot more support and subsidies.”
The greater Tucson community has addressed the poverty issue and has taken strides to help the poor.
“Tucson’s very fortunate in that we have a robust group of non-profits, housing programs, financial training programs and wide array of agencies that are taking on some piece of the conversation on poverty,” Bazata said.
Bazata said the goal is to get people ahead and stay ahead of poverty. She said she sees too often people climbing out of poverty and falling back in.
“We need to realize that we all have skin in the game,” she added.
Nels Bergeron is a reporter for Arizona Sonora News, a service from the School of Journalism with the University of Arizona. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org