Judaism advises us to “clothe, feed and shelter ones in need as if our own bodies.” So said Rabbi Stephanie Aaron of Congregation Chaverim in her welcome to around 100 people at the “Poverty in Tucson: Local Leaders Forum,” sponsored by the Jewish Community Relations Council of the Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona and held on April 24 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center.
Mayor Jonathan Rothschild gave a brief overview of the city’s progress in reducing poverty.
The most important goals — suggested by the Mayor’s Commission on Poverty that Rothschild convened in March 2012 — include making sure there are jobs that provide a livable wage, ensuring that children are prepared for college or work by high school graduation, and getting the appropriate resources to individuals who need assistance, such as refugees, single parents, people who live with physical disabilities or mental illness, and the formerly incarcerated.
With the Affordable Care Act, the number of uninsured Tucsonans has decreased from one in five to one in 10 in Tucson, said Rothschild. Through the Neighborhood Lifts program, 272 families have been able to achieve home ownership, and in the past 18 months 1,000 formerly homeless veterans have been housed.
In education, a grant from the National Service Corporation for National and Community Service will support “embedded workers to identify and navigate for students in need,” said the mayor, “in eight schools in the Flowing Wells, Sunnyside and Tucson Unified School Districts.”
For Tucsonans who have time to volunteer, “Go into the schools, become a mentor through Reading Seed, United Way and many other programs,” urged Rothschild.
Additional panelists who spoke at the forum, which was followed by a Q & A, included Michael McDonald, CEO of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona; Peggy Hutchison, CEO of the Primavera Foundation; David R. Baker, Ed.D., superintendent of the Flowing Wells School District; and Julia Smith Grace, M.S., doctoral candidate at the University of Arizona School of Sociology.
Panelists agreed that it’s complicated to evaluate all of poverty’s components. How does the poverty rate in other large cities compare to Tucson? “To say we’re the eighth highest is too simplistic,” said Grace, who led a recent UA study on poverty. The incomes of 200 randomly chosen local families may have classified some as poor, “but programs like food stamps help. We also have to look at what we’re comparing, which doesn’t address cost of living,” she said, which is much higher in New York City than it is in Tucson.
Poverty rates in different demographic groups must also be recognized. Tucson has a larger proportion than similar-sized cities of single parents, seniors, individuals with less than a high school education and Hispanics, all of whom have “a little bit higher poverty rates across the United States,” said Grace.
Plus, “income is not a great measure of people’s living standards. The families we interviewed didn’t necessarily describe themselves as poor but used strategies like borrowing money,” which, she said, “come at a cost.”
“Poverty affects the standard of living in all of us,” said McDonald. “We are impoverished because our neighbors are not able to fulfill their potential.” Considering the issue of food security, “we serve 217,000 people in our five-county service area every year. We’ve got to have government continue to do its part.”
How society evaluates government programs for the poor, and how people are identified as poverty-stricken varies depending on who’s looking. Hutchison pointed to misconceptions about people who live in poverty. “Sometimes we forget that people in poverty are working very hard to do better. There is a lack of equity of opportunity in our community,” she said. “I’m totally awed and overwhelmed by the deep struggles of working families in our community. It becomes like low-intensity conflict in a war zone. They get used to it.”
The effects of poverty may be most apparent in schools. “Parents may hand off lunchboxes to kids at 7 a.m. when they come home from work,” maybe from a second job, said Baker. “I see the anguish in families when they don’t have $5 for an arts club or for their kids to participate in athletic programs. I can’t even imagine the toll it takes on those families to make those emotional decisions.” The school superintendent wants to change that.
“We have to be careful about the competition-based model [of education]. Some kids cost more to educate than others. Poverty is in that mix. I think we have to be really careful” how we engage students in classrooms. “Schools need to be more receptive to kids talking to each other, and that may be louder, not sitting quietly in rows,” he said. “Kids need experiences to make connections, such as going to the top of Mount Lemmon, to New York City or to the Community Food Bank. I’m also going to push inquiry-based science field trips.”
During the Q & A period, panelists spoke about how lives can change when relationships are built — for both children and adults. “Many single mothers are rent-burdened, spending more than 30 percent of their income on rent,” said Hutchison, adding that when they become first-time homebuyers “they start to get promotions. They start thinking about college. They start seeing themselves differently.”
In her UA research, Grace found that a lot of people don’t have access to full-time work. They may only be working 10 hours a week, possibly at a few different jobs, which doesn’t make for stable family life.
The Community Food Bank “is incubating food entrepreneurs,” said McDonald. “What if you grow a garden and sell food at a farmer’s market? If a family makes $100 more a month sometimes that can make a difference,” and it can also be a project that a family works on together.
McDonald stressed that people “need partners in assuring the common good. And that’s called government,” he said, recalling how the War on Poverty, introduced by President Lyndon B. Johnson in his 1964 State of the Union address, led to a series of initiatives signed into law, many of which are still in place today.
Statistics from a Columbia University economic study showed that “government action is literally the only reason we [had] less poverty in 2012 than we did in 1967,” when data started to be collected on the effects of government programs, such as the Food Stamp Act of 1964, the establishment of Medicare and Medicaid, and many education initiatives, Dylan Matthews wrote in the Washington Post in January 2014.
Setting Tucson schoolchildren on a path of community involvement, said Baker, can help change lives. As a school superintendent, for example, he nominates students to serve on the Federation’s Jewish-Latino Teen Coalition every year, (see azjewishpost.com/2015/jewish-latino-teen-coalition-showcases-multiculturalism-at-home-and-in-d-c).
“No matter how much we test kids, that’s not the whole story,” said Baker. What makes a difference is compassionate relationships and “sharing our stories enough to influence policymakers.”