I’ve never been poor. I’ve been broke, but I never felt trapped like some of the Southern Arizonans profiled in our poverty series.
When I was a starving artist, Dad asked me, “Have you sold anything yet?” I said, “Yeah. I sold my stereo, my camera and someone’s interested in the car.” Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you saddle him with a student loan that’ll kill his appetite and deaden anyone’s sense of humor.
Poverty isn’t funny, despite the fact that many of the paychecks in this valley are a joke. Living at the corner of Violence and Narcotics next to ex-cons and con men made the trek to the laundromat a trial. Cheap macaroni and cheese made it bearable.
These days, Tucson is living on Top Ramen, the payday loan tab is overdue and the junker’s “check engine” light is on. You’ve seen the stories and the stats. For too many, there’s sour milk in the fridge, lottery stubs on the floor, and Goodwill is as good as it gets.
The Census Bureau reminds us that we’re the sixth-poorest city of our size. We’re Calcutta with cacti, the Poor Pueblo, Detroit with dust devils. Here in the Soweto of the Southwest the poor are capitalism’s acceptable collateral damage. The war on poverty? It’s over. Done. We surrendered.
Have we thrown up our hands because poverty has been with us ever since Fred Flintstone abandoned Wilma and his kid Pebbles? Once Barney and Wilma got hooked on cave meth, you knew Bamm-Bamm would turn to crime and Bedrock would end up looking like rubble.
Do we believe the blessed are the poor, for verily if they worked half as hard as we did they’d be next to us on our sofa listening to Rush Limbaugh in our doublewide and snickering with us over cruel jokes?
Know the difference between a Tucsonan and a pizza? A pizza can feed a family of four. What are the odds the social program you disparage this year is the one you’ll walk into next year, eyes downcast and hand open?
Indifferent to evidence and irritated by the poor, the government-haters end up aggravating the problem.
Teen pregnancy is a significant contributor to chronic poverty. What is our answer? Abstinence-only sex ed, a treatment that misdiagnoses the problem, ignores the facts and yet is politically sustained by impoverished imaginations. Support effective family planning or favor children having children. Pick one. While you’re at it, defund adult ed, cut day-care subsidies and cut another ribbon for a new prison because the only problems worth throwing money at are missile systems and impractical fences. Blaming the poor for poverty and looking away is not the moral, pragmatic or economical answer.
I have seen what works, and it starts with individual responsibility. The most heroic Tucsonans I have met are recovering addicts, parolees or abuse survivors who got clean, got decent jobs and got their lives and their kids back with the help of public programs and private agencies. It is foolish to turn away even one soul who is willing to accept responsibility for betterment. Pay now or pay later.
Fully fund and expand the proven public-assistance programs that change lives and junk the ineffective ones. Dramatically reducing poverty is demonstrably smart policy. The real question is, do we want a crippled. ineffective government or smart public services?
Tucson’s private sector has spawned a remarkable number of vigorous agencies that offer bootstraps to the bootless, whether it’s an abuse victim, a junkie or a mom who can’t afford diapers.
Critics declare the best welfare program is a good job — as if anyone would disagree. (Let’s make that three part-time jobs that offer no health insurance.)
I’m optimistic about gritty Tucson’s employment drought. Downtown is beginning to stir, international trade is going to bring us a sustainable windfall, industries like optics, aeronautics, software development and biotech are thriving, and the economic engine of the University of Arizona continues to purr. The reality of the job market suggests that even though our state may not invest in education, Tucson must.
I knew a woman who had been abandoned with two kids and accepted any assistance she could get from the state, from her church and friends. Eventually, she married an illiterate dropout and taught him how to read. He worked nonstop, and they added two more kids they couldn’t afford to the mix, including a boy who grew up to be a cartoonist and a columnist. He will never forget her stories of grit and humility. And her lifelong gratitude for the public assistance that sustained her and the private kindness of strangers that lifted her heavy heart away from the abyss of poverty.