Children in Southern Arizona are more likely to be living in poverty than anywhere else in the state.
This discrepancy has far-reaching consequences beyond simply a bad childhood, and is the primary reason for Arizona having the sixth worst poverty rate in the country. This is despite the fact that statewide, the rate of poverty in most metro areas is declining.
A 15-year longitudinal study published by Cornell University in late 2016 showed that children raised in poverty were susceptible to a series of psychological distresses, spurred by the stress and environment, ultimately bleeding over into their adult lives.
Tucson’s poverty rate has leveled out at 25 percent over the past three years, posing potential long-term effects.
The Cornell study, authored by Gary Evans, a professor in human ecology and in the departments of design and environmental analysis, found research supporting the notion that children born into poverty have an uphill climb. He highlighted the necessity of adequate, localized aid before the problem gets unmanageable.
“One of the things we know really well from developmental science, is that it is much more effective to prevent the problem than intervene when it is happening,” Evans said.
The study states that nearly 40 percent of sons raised in poverty will have similar incomes as their fathers, and many will develop higher levels of chronic stress, as well as aggressive and antisocial behavior.
According to Evans’ research on how to quell the problem, implementing an effective prevention plan should be a top priority for Tucson.
“Rather than trying to counteract or buffer the child who has already had that experience (poverty), we should try to remove it or reduce it in the first place,” he said.
To make that a reality, Evans emphasized the impact and role of programs both on the local and national level that look to ease the burden.
“The programs that work the best are multifaceted,” Evans said, “so rather than targeting one thing, say just housing, or better schools, they are looking at things across the board, trying to deal with these various risk factors associated with poverty.”
One such program in Southern Arizona is Our Family, aimed at helping people transition out of poverty, primarily through affordable housing opportunities and jobs.
Melissa Benjamin, program manager for Our Family’s homeless youth and family services, said that despite the aid the organization can provide at-risk families, it still isn’t enough.
“From my own personal experience,” Benjamin said, “with what we see from our work everyday, I don’t think that it has gotten better for families specifically here.”
Her experience is not an anomaly.
“Pima County has some of the highest levels of poverty in Arizona,” Benjamin said, “and some of the highest rates of homelessness per capita in the state. So in that regard, we have some work to do.”
While poverty rates have remained a point of concern in Arizona in recent years when compared with the rest of the nation, other cities have made noticeable strides, whereas Tucson continues to hover near the bottom. This does not bode well for overworked and underfunded local agencies trying to aid families in poverty.
Agencies such as these are the only safety net for families living on the edge.
“We have so many families in our community who are one devastating event away from homelessness and poverty,” Benjamin said. “One lost job, one medical emergency. We need more resources to do something about that.”
According to the U.S. Census, Phoenix’s poverty rate in 2015 was 16.2 percent, a drop from its 17.2 mark the year prior. Flagstaff was closer to the rate of Tucson, at 24.2 percent. This dropped from 24.9 percent in 2014. The state average of 18.2 percent in 2014 dropped to 17.4 in 2015. The national rate hovers right around 15 percent.
But what exactly is the effect of childhood poverty on the overall economic structure of our country, and why does it matter to anyone other than those actually living in it? The answer is the role poverty takes as it passes from generation to generation.
“What most Americans do not know,” Evans said, “is that the U.S. has the lowest social mobility of any western modern democracy. If I look at the correlation between your dad’s income when you were a child, and your income as an adult, that correlation, in the U.S., is the highest in the western modern world.”
Evans pointed out that poverty brings about a slew of major health problems, namely chronic stress and diminished memory capacity as well as cognitive performance. Children who grow up in poverty tend to become stuck in the mire of these adverse effects associated with their upbringing, with little chance of shaking free, without the proper support.
Nearly 1 in every 3 Tucsonans under the age of 18 lives in poverty (34.9 percent). Flagstaff, second worst in terms of child poverty in the state, only has a 25.7 percent poverty rate for people under age 18. Not only does Tucson have one of the highest poverty rates in the state, the city has an even worse rate for its children.
“There’s a deep belief in American culture that you need to pull yourself up by your bootstraps,” Evans said. “The idea is if you really work hard and play by the rules, you can become middle class. Although we have this strong belief that we can all have this upward mobility, the facts don’t bare that out.”
Brian Mayer, a sociology associate professor at the University of Arizona, created the Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop, a student-led scientific inquiry looking into the direct consequences of poverty in Tucson.
“(Data) basically tells us that children who grow up in Pima County in comparison to the national average tend to earn a little over $3,000 less by the time they’re an adult,” he said.
According to Mayer, Maricopa County ranks better than the national average, while Coconino, despite being less than average, is still better than Pima.
To Mayer, the problem specific to Pima County and Tucson are poor educational opportunities, mixed with limited affordable housing and low wages.
On a broader economic scale, the high poverty rate detracts potential businesses and commercial expansion in the area. The only way to extinguish poverty is for better jobs and economical opportunities needed for social mobility to come to Tucson, but as Mayer points out, why would they?
The problem stems from the economical and societal opportunity available in Pima County.
“If you compare what young professionals make in Tucson with Phoenix, for example, it’s significantly less,” Mayer said.
Where does that gap come from? As Evans pointed out earlier, the income of the child comes to mirror that of the father later in life. The cyclical nature of the problem is evident. If left untreated, generations will continue living in squalor, ultimately writing the script for their children and grandchildren.
“I don’t think people realize that we literally have children that are sleeping on our streets and living in vehicles,” Benjamin said.
Evans finds the lesson gained from the Social Security as a potential solution to the current predicament.
“Before Social Security, the group in the United States with the largest poverty rates was the elderly, and we decided as a society that that was unacceptable,” he said.
Evans explained that through Social Security, life expectancy for the elderly went up, quality of life improved and major health outcomes began to look better.
He said that the answer to the child poverty rests in that model because after Social Security, society showed that “there is in fact something that can be done – you can decrease risk factors.”
Daniel Burkart 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