Nonprofit leaders and educators called Wednesday night for more accountability and coordination in local efforts to relieve the crushing poverty faced by the area’s working poor.

“We have to look at our shops, our own businesses, our own places of work. Do the people we hire make a living wage?” Peggy Hutchison, chief executive officer of the Primavera Foundation, said during a public forum.

Wednesday’s forum, moderated by Neal Conan — former host of National Public Radio’s “Talk of the Nation” — was the first in a series of panel discussions exploring topics important to Tucsonans. It was produced by Arizona Public Media and the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona.

Poverty among the working poor is pervasive here: One in five Pima County residents and 29 percent of children live below the poverty level.

Many panelists emphasized the dedication of Tucson’s robust nonprofit community and the generosity of the local population.

But all agreed that’s not enough. In addition to stronger leadership on the issue of poverty, and greater accountability for nonprofits regarding their outcomes, panelists called for coordination among social-services programs and engagement of the private sector.

Michael McDonald, chief executive officer of the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, said the government and nonprofit sectors can’t fix poverty alone.

“We don’t have any panelists up here from the business community. This is an economic-development activity as much as it is a human-service activity,” he said.

Solutions raised included more centralized “hubs” that offer social services to those without cars; free public transportation; widespread early childhood education; getting locally grown food into more school cafeterias; and fostering data-driven coordination, not just well-meaning collaboration, among nonprofits.

Many panelists agreed on the need to put resources into collecting and evaluating data on specific programs — and then cut the cord on those that don’t show results.

“We have to be willing to say, ‘Let it go because it may feel good, but it’s not really making a difference,’” Hutchison said.

But programs with returns deserve support: Early childhood education, for example, has a $11.41 return on investment for every dollar invested, said Molly Castelazo, founder and president of Castelazo Content.

Access to healthful and affordable food is a major barrier for the low-income children who come to school hungry and unable to concentrate, said Margaret Chaney, a teacher in the Tucson Unified School District.

Poverty can deeply undermine the ability to achieve, she said.

“I have students who arrive in school very hungry, very unprepared, very listless,” she said. “The last thing on their mind is the homework assignment you gave them last week or the test tomorrow.”

Addressing food security can start small but must become scalable: There are 20 community gardens at schools in TUSD, but organizers still have to get through regulatory barriers that would allow the veggies to be served in the school cafeterias, McDonald said. That requires political will, he said.

Ian Galloway, senior research associate at the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, floated the idea of “social impact bonds,” in which private investors pay for the completion of a social goal, like reducing the number of kids with Type 2 diabetes in a neighborhood.

“If you accomplish that, I commit to paying you for delivering that outcome. That opens up all sorts of investable opportunities … that private investors can participate directly in,” Galloway said.

Contact reporter Emily Bregel at or 807-7774. On Twitter: @EmilyBregel