Tucson kids pay poverty's high price

1 in 3 children here are poor, topping state, national averages
2013-08-04T00:00:00Z 2014-07-30T17:16:12Z Tucson kids pay poverty's high priceStephanie Innes Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
August 04, 2013 12:00 am  • 

A 9-year-old boy, about to attend his seventh school, keeps his clothes and belongings in a garbage bag. He sleeps on the floor alongside two other children.

A mom quits work because she can't afford her infant's day care. Two young boys and their family move into a rusty 1977 RV after their father's janitorial service falls victim to the recession.

Poverty in Tucson is invisible to many, yet it is increasing.

And our children suffer the most.

One in three kids under the age of 18 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.

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.

What makes us so poor?

As a region we've made political decisions to bypass economic opportunities.

Our proximity to Phoenix impedes our chances with companies looking to relocate to Arizona. Phoenix has more skilled labor, a larger airport, better infrastructure, professional sports teams, a thriving night life and a wealthier arts scene.

A large federal safety net of Social Security and Medicare helps senior citizens. But with the exception of food stamps, it's mainly up to states to take care of children - and that support is falling short, particularly in Arizona. Not only is the state getting less federal money to help needy residents, but it's diverting funds away from directly addressing poverty.

Growing up poor dims kids' chances of success as adults. Add chaotic living conditions to the mix and the odds get even worse. Unstable housing, spotty school attendance and limited access to nutritious food and medical care increase the chances kids will grow up to be unemployed, unhealthy and in trouble with the law - in short, the responsibility of taxpayers.

Over the next eight days, the Star will explain the root causes of our childhood poverty - and we'll identify solutions.

The problem is complex, and solving it will take all of us working together. In many ways, we chose this destiny through a series of missed opportunities, says former Mayor George Miller.

Miller says a lack of community cooperation has consistently hindered Tucson's economic success. In one recent example, the city's waffling and infighting made Grand Canyon University decide to look elsewhere for a place to put its new campus - and 1,000 new jobs - that would have replaced the city's money-losing Trini Alvarez El Rio Golf Course.

"There always seems to be a group of people in Tucson who want to stop any growth regarding business," Miller says. "Then we end up with a city of low wages. ... We go backwards instead of forward."

Chaos

Poverty is not inherently bad for children. Plenty of poor families live in modest but stable homes led by parents who give their kids structure and a sense of security.

But far too many children living in poverty also live in chaos. They keep their belongings in a pillowcase, always ready for the next move. They live with one parent, who may bring home partner after partner. They might witness drug abuse.

Poor children are nearly seven times more likely to suffer abuse and neglect, and two times more likely to experience violent crimes, including death, the Phoenix-based Children's Action Alliance says.

Poor males are twice as likely to be arrested, and poor females are six times as likely to bear a child out of wedlock before the age of 21.

The American Academy of Pediatrics now calls poverty one of the greatest threats to children's health. And plenty of Tucson kids are proof of that. In many rundown trailers, there's no stove because parents fear causing a fire. When one 10-year-old midtown boy broke his arm recently, his parents would not seek medical attention because they are drug users who are afraid of Child Protective Services. They set the arm themselves, and it is now misshapen.

Severe and chronic trauma, such as living with an alcoholic parent or witnessing domestic violence, causes toxic stress in children. Stress can damage young brains, says John Medina, a molecular biologist in Washington state who studies brain development.

He says when trauma launches kids into flight, fight or fright mode, it is physiologically impossible for them to learn.

"The single greatest predictor of academic success," Medina says, "is emotional stability in the home."

New type of poverty

When President Lyndon B. Johnson fought his War on Poverty in the 1960s, many of the roads to prosperity were blocked for women and minorities.

Laws changed that. But a new kind of poverty has emerged.

"In the '60s they got legal justice. We need economic justice," says Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, who has made raising awareness of poverty a priority.

Poverty is a puzzle, and its pieces include 21st-century economic and societal forces like the collapse of the housing market, the decline of nuclear families and a shifting ethos in how businesses compensate employees. In 1965, CEOs in the U.S. made 20 times more than rank-and-file workers. The gap in 2012 was 273-to-1.

In Arizona, more than 6,000 children in low-income working families are on a waiting list for help with child-care costs that often are as high as rent payments. A waiting list for federal Section 8 housing assistance is 10,500 names long - and would be longer except that it's frozen.

The U.S. Census Bureau's last American Community Survey, based on 2011 data, ranked Tucson as the nation's sixth-poorest major metropolitan area. Local leaders and pundits have been quick to poke holes in that claim, saying the methodology was flawed and the rankings ignore the economic diversity of an area. But the arguments miss the big picture.

"The ranking might be a little distorted, but that is beside the point," Pima County Administrator Chuck Huckelberry says. "The point is, why do we have poverty?"

Leaving poverty behind

Poverty is not a life sentence.

Souleymane Barry, his wife and daughter arrived here from Guinea five years ago with nothing. They came as immigrants, so they received no federal refugee support.

Immigrant children are twice as likely to be poor as those who are native-born. And each year, thousands of refugees and immigrants move to Arizona.

The family had some advantages: Its members spoke English, had use of a donated car and were able to live with a relative in Green Valley for a few months.

Barry's pregnant wife, Fatimatu Bah, qualified for Medicaid, a government health insurance program for low-income people. That covered the birth of their son, Umar, who is now 5.

The family never took any other government money.

Barry worked three jobs in those first couple of years: a minimum-wage job at KFC, stocking at Walmart and landscaping.

When they'd saved enough, the family moved to Tucson, where Barry, 41, attended Pima Community College and became a licensed practical nurse. Bah, 33, worked as a patient technician in a nursing home.

The family is saving for a house. Barry has $7,000 left on his student loans and is paying it back with a $24-per-hour, full-time job at a nursing home. His wife hopes to go to school for job training. Their daughter, 11-year-old Samira, talks about becoming a mathematics professor one day.

One thing the family has not secured is affordable health insurance. A major illness or injury could undo everything they've worked so hard for.

Other factors

Fractured families and addiction hinder others' climb up the socioeconomic ladder.

Breaunna Liggett, 27, felt rejected by her mother and turned to drugs at age 13. Now she lives with her two kids in a women's shelter run by the Gospel Rescue Mission.

She'd been spending the rent money on drugs, but is trying to kick her addiction.

"My 3-year-old had anger I couldn't conceive. Seeing it broke my heart," she says. "I neglected him emotionally. I wasn't there for him. I didn't play with him or take him to do things."

Liggett has been drug-free since October and says she's determined to reunite with her husband and be a better mother. She doesn't want her children to experience the rejection she felt growing up in Kansas. She was raised by her grandparents, even though her mother lived in the same town. She met her father just once.

"I had a lot of anguish growing up. My grandparents loved me, but I felt rejection from my mom," she says. "I started smoking marijuana at 13, and then in my senior year of high school I tried meth."

Lack of parenting skills

Some children find their way to a stable life with the support of a relative, teacher or other adult who cares.

Some don't.

Among other things, the Southern Arizona Children's Advocacy Center hosts visits for parents whose children are in state custody due to abuse and neglect.

Executive Director Kathy Rau has seen parents who are allowed an hour of visiting time hand their babies back after 30 minutes. Sometimes parents call to say they want to change their time so they can sleep in.

She recalls one case where a little girl made a card for her mother, who never showed up.

Many of these parents simply don't know how to parent. They don't have regular schedules. They abuse alcohol or use drugs all night with their kids in the room.

They can't be bothered to get their kids to school. Boyfriends and girlfriends come and go.

They make bad decisions. They are selfish. Their babies may not have diapers, but the parents have cable television.

Rau doesn't equate poverty with child abuse and neglect, and she speaks from experience. She spent more than two decades as an investigator for the Tucson Police Department. She saw many low-income neighborhoods where families had little money, but their homes were clean and they created a loving environment. Grandparents often lived with them, and there was always food on the table.

"A lot of families living in poverty do a great job raising their children," she says. "A lot of people with money do a terrible job. Parenting is more about choices."

Bad choices often yield a heartbreaking home life for children.

Medical staffers at the child advocacy center visit homes where children live with feces and spoiled food on the floor. They have seen babies with rat bites and toddlers with rotting teeth. They visit homes strewn with empty alcohol bottles, cigarette packs, fast-food wrappers and drug needles.

"There is a long-term effect," Rau says. "In a chaotic environment, of course, a child can't concentrate. They can't go home and do their homework."

What it's like for kids

Antonio Rubio-Marshall just graduated from high school at age 20.

Given his childhood in a family fractured by substance abuse, domestic violence and mental illness, he was at high risk of never graduating at all.

Rubio-Marshall loves his mother and feels protective of her. But the environment she created was not always healthy, he acknowledges.

Her boyfriend drank too much. He let his buddy move into the trailer they shared, so Rubio-Marshall remembers sleeping on the floor. He says the boyfriend often passed out in the bathroom, sometimes missing the toilet and leaving urine and feces in the bathtub, on the walls and the floor.

Although there was always food in the refrigerator, the family never ate together.

"My mom just felt bad about herself," Rubio-Marshall says.

As a child, he spent a lot of time alone. Sometimes he got angry and slashed tires in the neighborhood. As a teenager, he turned to drugs and alcohol and often missed school.

What saved him, he says, was a teacher who invited him to live with her family - but only if he stopped drinking and using drugs. He wanted a family life so badly that he gave up both. His new home was like nowhere he'd ever lived. It was clean and loving, with set times for getting up, doing chores and eating meals.

His teacher connected him with a local program called Youth on Their Own, which helped him get back on track in school. The program financially rewards kids for going to school and maintaining an average of at least a C. Homeless youths who don't finish high school are at high risk of ending up behind bars, Youth on Their Own leaders say.

Today Rubio-Marshall is drug-free, shares an apartment with a roommate and supports himself with part-time jobs. He is hoping to start Pima Community College in the fall if he can secure financial aid, and he is excited about a new job waiting tables at a local restaurant.

His goal is to work in early-childhood education because he wants to help kids become successful adults.

The effects of his childhood linger, however. He struggles with reading and writing. No one read to him as a child, but he doesn't know if that affected his skills.

"When I went to school," he says, "I felt I wasn't smart enough."

Also, the state froze single, childless adults out of Medicaid, a government health insurance program for the poor. He has no health insurance and, aside from a free teeth cleaning through Youth on Their Own, hasn't seen a dentist in years.

Trauma is key factor

Recognizing trauma as a key factor in health and in delinquency is catching on across the nation.

In Tucson, El Rio Health Center and the Pima County Juvenile Court Center are beginning to incorporate trauma training into their programs. At the court center, they are learning ways to help children calm themselves, recognize emotions and build resilience.

A new test can determine where a person ranks in terms of "adverse childhood events." The higher the score - based on an ongoing federal study - the greater the risk for mental health problems, addiction, chronic pain, and chronic illnesses such as hypertension, pulmonary disease and cancer.

There is a way out of this spiral, national experts and local leaders agree. But it means working together, and Tucson's private, public and nonprofit sectors too often operate in silos, seemingly unaware of what the others are doing.

Work is duplicated. Efforts go unnoticed.

An important first step is broader awareness, says Roman Catholic Diocese of Tucson Bishop Gerald F. Kicanas.

"Interspersed with wealth and opportunity in our community is poverty and a sense of hopelessness," he says. "The poor here can be invisible, hidden.

"Tucson is a community that cares. That many in our community live below the poverty line has to get our attention.

"A community thrives when all in the community have a place, a voice and an opportunity to succeed."

Reporters Emily Bregel, Carli Brosseau and Patty Machelor contributed to this report. Contact reporter Stephanie Innes at sinnes@azstarnet.com or 573-4134

Read more of the Losing Ground series here.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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