New census data shows there are fewer children in Tucson living in poverty.
The latest American Community Survey, based on 2013 data, showed that the poverty rate among children under the age of 18 was 33.6 percent, 4.4 percentage points less than the figure from the year before.
The percentage of children living in poverty in Tucson was higher than the state’s 26.5 percent. Nationally, about 20 percent of all children are below the poverty threshold, which the survey calculates using income, family size and composition.
A family of four with a total income of $23,550 a year is considered to be below the poverty level according to federal guidelines. The National Center for Children in Poverty at Columbia University said research shows that families need double that amount to cover basic expenses.
The decline in the number of children living in poverty in Tucson could be explained by families transitioning from part-time to full-time employment in recent years, said Patti Caldwell, executive director of Our Family Services, an organization that provides support to children, youth and families in need.
“Really, the trend we’re seeing towards the slight improvements, it’s really very recent,” she said.
Fewer children living in poverty is clearly a positive thing, but the number for Tucson is still higher than the national average and not something the community can be proud of, Caldwell said.
“Any significant change and any significant efforts to move the needle on poverty will take more than the kind of resources we’re putting forward as a community at this time,” she said.
It’s a very limited progress, said Lane Kenworthy, a former University of Arizona sociology professor who worked with nonprofit organizations and Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild’s Commission on Poverty. He and his colleague, UA graduate student Julia Smith, conducted a research project examining poverty in Tucson.
There’s a lot of debate about why the poverty rate figures have budged, Kenworthy said. The number may have declined, but there is still poverty in Tucson.
“(The numbers) don’t give us a great feel for what the texture of people’s lives are like in real life,” he said.
For his research with Smith, Kenworthy said he had 250 undergraduate students at the UA interview families living in poverty. He found that there are so many different ways that people try to make ends meet, often with incomes that middle-class or wealthy people would find impossible to live on. The number of stories of those in Tucson who are barely scraping by are not accurately represented by statistics, he said.
Significant progress beyond the 4.4 percentage points would require more than just a few things, Kenworthy said. There would have to be measurable improvement in public and nonprofit services.
“I don’t think there is a silver bullet,” he said.
Rothschild’s office has put an emphasis on reducing poverty in Tucson, though he said in an email that he does not know what may have contributed to the drop in the number of children living in poverty.
“We continue to look for ways we can have the biggest impact on poverty with the resources we have, and those are very limited,” he said.
Rothschild’s Commission on Poverty is set to release a report this fall.