In Light of Local Poverty, Tucson Needs Creative Direction & Progressive Economic Ideas


Development33-sig-sm72by Pamlea Powers Hannley

Business friendly? Tucson’s been there, done that, … and got the t-shirt at Goodwill. As former City Councilwoman Molly McKasson said, we put all of our eggs in the development basket and look where it got us.

Twenty percent of Tucsonans are living in poverty.

Thirty percent of Tucson children are living in poverty.

Fifty-two percent of Tucson children live in a one-parent household.

Seventy-one percent of Tucson Unified School District students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. (Statistics from the Arizona Daily Star.)

How did we get here?

The Back Story on Tucson’s Poverty Rate

In a November 2011 “What If?” article published just a few days before the last mayoral election, former Arizona Daily Star reporter Josh Brodesky interviewed activist, writer, and artist McKasson and mused about how Tucson would be different today if she had beaten former Mayor Bob Walkup back in their 1999 match-up.

I remember that election well. Walkup– a former Hughes Aircraft executive and former head of the Greater Tucson Economic Council– was the quintessential business candidate. Bankrolled by Tucson’s business community, Walkup’s campaign successfully painted McKasson as a flighty hippie artist whose no-growth, tree-hugging, water-conserving policies would be bad for Tucson (ie, bad for business and bad for growth). Meanwhile, Walkup was championed as a business savvy savior who successfully ran a business, and, therefore, (of course!) could successfully run a city.

As mayor, the glad-handing, ribbon-cutting Walkup promoted business development, Rio Nuevo, and ill-conceived, taxpayer-funded private projects like the downtown hotel (which went down in flames, thank goodness). Except for his pro-business, pro-growth cheerleading, Walkup was a do-nothing mayor who depended upon defense funding, the occasional TREO call center moving to Tucson, and housing boom construction jobs to bolster Tucson’s chronically low-wage tourist economy. The Tucson Weekly’s endorsement of McKasson (here) eerily  predicts what happened to Tucson under three terms of Walkup. Read it and more background and new ideas after the jump.


· City Council members who favor big-money interests like Wal-Mart and Home Depot over local merchants and local neighborhoods.

· Unlimited annexations to keep large-scale developers happy while we, the taxpayers, foot their infrastructure bills and cope with their sprawl.

· Hearing delightful rumors about the latest big employer to hit town, only to find out it’s yet another low-wage phone service center.

· Duplicitous “Democrats” like Shirley Scott and George Miller [check outMiller's quote about midway into this article] pretending to be for the people while scrambling to serve overly demanding developers and cheap-shit, out-of-state corporations.

· Car-culture crazies clamoring for more and wider roads with no thought to the future. [I hope theBroadway Coalitionsuccessfully scales back the unwarranted widening of Broadway Blvd.]

· Phoenix-based billboard barons who believe they have the right to exhibit their hideous erections [love it!] anywhere they please over our heads….

McKasson, who has written about Poverty in Tucson, offers a telling summation of the business friendly Walkup era in the Brodesky article:

[McKasson] sees the repercussions of the housing crisis here – the vacancies, our high poverty rate, foreclosures ringing the city – as reflective of our failure to develop a dynamic workforce.

“How interesting, and how sad, that we should hit a point that having put all of our eggs into the basket of development, lo and behold we hit the wall[economically speaking].”

Now Look Where We Are

Why local history lesson? Looking back at the 12-year Walkup era gives us insight into the problems of poverty in Tucson today. By hiring a business development cheerleader as mayor and putting all of our eggs in the development basket, poverty in Tucson has skyrocketed. (Of course, I would be remiss if I didn’t give the Arizona Legislature and Governor Jan Brewer at least half the “credit” for Tucson’s poverty rate. With tight ties to the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), the Legislature attempts multiple anti-union, anti-worker, anti-woman, anti-voter, anti-immigrant, anti-education AND pro-corporate bills every year– like this one banning  a living wage in Arizona or this one intended to deny unemployment benefits or this one intended to suppress voter initiatives and voting altogether or multiple years of “balancing” the state budget on the backs of children.)

In Sunday’s newspaper, the Arizona Daily Star began a week-long series about the extent of poverty in Tucson and Southern Arizona. Tucson Kids Pay Poverty’s High Price and related other articles harken back to the day when the Star had a full staff of qualified reporters. It’s an excellent article; so, I’m not going to rehash the whole thing– just offer a few high points (or actually low points) :

One in three kids age 18 and younger inside our city limits lives in poverty. Statewide, the rate is one in four. Nationwide, it’s one in five.

The recession spiked poverty nationwide, but the surge went deeper here.

As the government cut cash assistance, federal grant money and child-support subsidies, the safety net that once caught Arizona families frayed. [Remember, Congressional Republicans and Republicans in the Arizona Legislature and elsewhere want to cut these programs further.]

The situation in Tucson was aggravated by our job market, which is dominated by a service industry that pays barely livable wages and often offers only part-time jobs. Compared with the U.S. and state averages, we also have a higher percentage of single-parent households, which are more likely to be strapped for money.

More than half of the babies born in Pima County have mothers who qualify for Medicaid, the government health-care program for the poorest Arizonans.

The percentage of children who qualify for free or reduced-price lunch in the Tucson Unified School District jumped from 57 percent in 2006 to the current 71 percent, well above the state average of 59 percent. In some low-income schools, 60 percent of the student body is transient, either leaving or enrolling after the first day of the academic year…

Arizona is one of the poorest states not only under the U.S. Census’ traditional poverty measure, but also taking into account government payments and local cost of living. [Why does the Legislature keep cutting corporate taxes if we are one of the poorest states?]About 23,000 Pima County children have a parent who is either incarcerated or on probation. [Thank you ALEC! We have to keep those private prisons full of immigrants and drug fiends.]

More than half – 52 percent – of Tucson kids live in single-parent homes, far higher than the 35 percent national average. [Thank you, abstinence only sex ed classes!]

Tucson’s wages are below the national average, but the cost of living here is not proportionately lower.

The number of Pima County residents receiving food stamps doubled in the last six years. [Why did Congressman Ron Barber vote to cut food stamps?]

The metro Tucson area includes two American Indian reservations, which have high unemployment.

The city and county receive one-quarter to one-third less federal money to support needy families than they did in 2001. [Isn't austerity grand?]

The number of Arizona children receiving state subsidies for child care has dropped by nearly 20,000 since 2009.

The recession made affordable housing tougher to find as foreclosures sent demand for apartments soaring.

More than one-third of the new jobs in Tucson since 2009 have been temporary positions.

What a disgusting list of statistics.

How Did this Happen?

Nearly every item on this list could have been avoided, but I take issue with the Star’s assertion that, “As a region we’ve made political decisions to bypass economic opportunities.” (Come on, did Jim Click or Mike Varney write that?) I also take issue with the Star’s blame-it-on-Phoenix line, “Our proximity to Phoenix impedes our chances with companies looking to relocate to Arizona,” and with former Mayor George Miller’s blame-the-rape-victim swipe at no-growth NIMBYs. (They’re just making excuses for TREO‘s ineffectiveness here. In a rare lucid moment, even Republican State Superintendent of Instruction John Huppenthal said that “corporate giveaways” and “buying growth, making these deals” is a corrupt, and “That’s what loser states do.” Did he have a brain transplant while I wasn’t looking?)

If federal, state, and local governments would have adopted progressive economic policies instead of regressive policies that benefit only the rich AND If our state Legislature and the Congress were not owned by ALEC and multinational corporations, we the people would be in much better shape. I place the blame for these poverty statistics squarely in the laps of the Republican Party and their 1% masters. They created this scenario in Tucson and other cities nationwide, and if they have their way, austerity cuts for average Americans will deepen. Republican-led Legislatures and the Republican-led House of Representatives want to push all of us– or at least 99% of us– further down the economic ladder. Cutting, defunding, or crippling food stamps, school lunch programs (used by 71% of TUSD students!),women’s reproductive health services, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and theAffordable Care Act– while funding pork barrel projects for the Pentagon and agri-business; bolstering private prisons; suppressing voter and worker rights; and “rethinking” the minimum (down, not up)– is their agenda (as dictated by ALEC).

As the Arizona Blue Meanie recently wrote, the Tea Party Republicans want to “repeal the 20th century.” Who needs a minimum wage, a 40-hour work week, unions, paid vacation and sick leave, child labor laws, healthcare, affordable (or free contraception), abortion and family planning, direct election of US Senators, public education… need I go on? (And why did we ever allow women to vote in the first place?!) This is class warfare, people.

What Can We Do?

Here is a short list of progressive economic policies that could help Tucson and other impoverished state and local governments dig themselves out of the hole their in. Some are local strategies, while others are national strategies.

Free Organized Labor. Historic data shows that when a higher percentage of the populace works under a union contract, overall wages are higher. Right-to-work states like Arizona have lower wages than states that have higher rates of union workers. (When unionizing in Tucson, I suggest starting with classified staff in the university system. Thousands of university employees work uncompensated overtime regularly. Just think how much money would be injected into the local economy if University of Arizona employees were paid for every hour they worked or if the University had the money to hire the staff it needs.

Invest Locally and Foster Research. Instead of competing with other cities by offering land or tax breaks to lure companies to Tucson, take all of the government money that now goes to TREO and invest in local business and local research. (TREO can keep the corporate membership funds.) Invest the governmental funds in Tucson by: 1) offering grants or low-cost loans for local Tucson-based businesses who have solid expansion ideas and 2) offering small pilot research grants to the UA. Seed grants for pilot research projects allow scientists to gather preliminary data, which makes them more competitive for large national grants. Plus– research projects and UA inventions often spawn high-tech Tucson businesses and provide jobs for college graduates who are now leaving Tucson after graduation. (I’d rather work for Ventana Medical Systems than a TREO call center any day.)

Eliminate Public Funding of Private Projects. Bankrolling business development is a bad idea; let the invisible hand of the market work. Tinkering in capitalism has gotten Tucson nowhere. Capitalism is all about taking risks and making big bucks if you are successful. Banks should be lending developers money– not taxpayers. In aNovember 2011 Star article on TREO, then Mayor-elect Rothschild said he wanted to make sure that Tucson’s investment in TREO was worthwhile, ”I want to give TREO specific (performance) markers. … What is the return on that dollar?” It’s been almost 2 years. Let’s rethink that investment and others that are on the table like redevelopment of the Ronstadt Transit Center.

Establish a Public Bank. Currently state and local governments keep their money in private commercial banks, which charge fees and invest that money on Wall Street– thus making money on our money by investing it out of state. By establishing a public bank, the governmental entity controls its own money, thus saving the cost of bank fees and freeing up the governmental entity to invest locally. Public banks — like the Public Bank of North Dakota– can help build local economies, create jobs, and/or relieve debt. As suggested above, Tucson or Pima County could establish a public bank and foster economic development by offering low-cost loans to Tucson businesses and offering seed grants to researchers. A public bank could also buy of toxic mortgages and help underwater homeowners. These ideas directly help the people.

Pass the Robin Hood Tax. Also known as the Financial Speculation Tax, the Robin Hood Tax is a tiny tax on each Wall Street transaction. This would not only raise billions of dollars annually, it would also eliminate computerized micro-trading, where stocks and bonds are bought and sold in an instant. (This type of trading adds volatility but not value to the market.)

Pass Universal Healthcare. The Affordable Care Act– AKA Obamacare or Romneycare– was a Republican compromise. Yes, it’s better than no reform (whichPaul Ryan and other Republicans prefer), but it is hugely complicated and flawed. By far the #1 reason Americans file for bankruptcy and lose their homes is they can’t pay their medical bills. With Romneycare, 98% of Massachusetts residents have healthcare insurance, but Romneycare (the model for Obamacare) has not significantly reduced the medical bankruptcy rate.

Raise the Minimum Wage. This is a no-brainer. How many economists have to say that the way to stimulate the economy and encourage growth and prosperity is to put money in the pockets of Americans? Even George Bush tried it by sending all of us $200 checks. (Here’s a hint, George, hgher wages would have been a better idea.) Congress needs to stop the posturing and do something. $10/hour + health insurance nationwide will do more than corporate tax cuts to make the US economy boom again.

Fund FREE Contraception and Family Planning Services, FULL Reproductive Rights, and Planned Partenthood.Poverty IS a women’s issue. This fact is fully evident in the Arizona Daily Star’s Sunday’s story – just look at the photo on the front page– a young woman in a homeless shelter with her infant. Republican cuts to reproductive health services nationwide will raise the rate of single-parent households, raise the rate of children born in poverty, raise the school dropout rate, and raise the prison population rate. This is what ALEC wants, but it is obviously not good for the American people. Republican-led State Legislatures in Arizona, Texas, North Carolina, North Dakota, and elsewhere proposed more than 300 individual pieces of legislationin 2013 to limit women’s health choices, eliminate funding for free or affordable contraception, and close abortion clinics. In the courts, corporate people– like Hobby Lobby– are chipping away at insurance coverage for contraception in the Affordable Care Act because contraception goes against Hobby Lobby’s religious beliefs. I want to know where Hobby Lobby goes to church and what denomination Hobby Lobby is. Does Hobby Lobby tithe?  Secular corporations like Hobby Lobby suing to defund contraception as part of health insurance is a sexist corporate strategy to save money– nothing more. Hobby Lobby– What would Jesus do?

Keep the press free. Corporate media is in a dismal state. Network television “news” is nonexistent. Newspapers are folding. The advertising model for news distribution doesn’t work. Now what? Blogs have filled some of the news gap, but you get what you pay for. Since most bloggers are unpaid, you can read what they want to write when they want to write it. Non-profit funding of investigative journalism is evolving. In the meantime, we must fight to keep free and open access to the Internet.

I could go on… end corporate personhood, get money out of politics, establish community wellness centers, fully fund public education, fully fund scientific research, excuse student loan debt, pass Glass Steagall, cut military spending, decriminalize marijuana and stop wholesale incarceration of young adults for victimless crimes, fix immigration and establish a path to citizenship… but you get the idea. The Republicans are lying to us. We don’t need austerity. This country has plenty of money and talent to flourish. The money is stashed away in the bank accounts of the wealthy– instead of in the hands of the people who can really jump start the economy and create jobs– US.

UPDATE: Below are links to the Arizona Daily Star series on local poverty. The Star is to be commended for this very powerful and informative series. One glaring omission is the role wrong-headed laws crafted by the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and passed by Republican legislatures (like Arizona's) have played in creating and perpetuating the cycle of poverty across the US. Budget cuts to social safety net programs and public education– coupled with racist mandatory sentencing laws, suppressed wages, schizophrenic immigration policies, a broken healthcare system, and a booming private prison industry– have helped keep the 99% down and the 1% in power.

Sunday: Tucson kids pay poverty's high price

Monday: Special report: Young moms, kids barely making it

Tuesday: Many Tucson Jobs Are Low-Pay

Wednesday: Many Struggle to Find a Place to Live

Thursday: Tribes Confront Complex Problems

Friday: Jail, Prison Bring Sentence of Poverty

Saturday: Child Care's Cost Prolongs Poverty

The story was originally posted on Check out that version here, if you want to see more photos of business friendly development downtown. Like what you read? Follow me on Facebook, here.


  1. Nice post. While 20% of Tusconians live in poverty, there are other Tusconians with more money than they and their descendants possibly could spend over the next century.

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