WASHINGTON — An estimated 88,529 Arizonans rose from the ranks of poverty last year, but that still left about 1 million – or 1 in 7 state residents – living below the poverty level, new data show.
The latest Census Bureau figures also show that Arizona’s poverty rate fell faster, but remained higher, than the national average last year. Poverty in Arizona fell from 16.4 to 14.9 percent, while the national level went from 14.0 to 13.4 percent in the same period.
The numbers did not surprise Arizona experts, who say the state has historically higher levels of poverty but is coming back faster than the nation because it had so far to climb after being hammered in the recession.
“We have been making strong progress in recent years,” said Dan Hunting, a senior policy analyst at the Morrison Institute of Public Policy. “Some of this progress is due to a generally improving economy, and some of it is because the Great Recession hit Arizona particularly hard.”
But even an improving economy does not mean everyone in the state is doing better, said Cynthia Zwick, executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association.
“More and more folks are working, but the wages are not yet keeping up with what is needed to support a family or an individual who is working full time,” Zwick said. She said that in Arizona, “49 percent of the jobs here pay less than $15 an hour. Many jobs are paying the minimum wage, which I think it’s harder and harder for families to support themselves.”
The Census Bureau’s definition of poverty varies according to the number of people in a household. A single person who made $12,488 last year was living at the poverty level, as was a family with two parents and two kids making $24,858.
Last year’s drop in the poverty level marked the sixth-straight decrease, which experts attributed to a steadily improving economy and nearly full employment.
Nationally, Mississippi remained the state with the highest poverty rate, at 19.8 percent, and New Hampshire was the lowest, at 7.7 percent.
Among large metro areas, the 1.7 percentage point drop in Phoenix, to a rate of 13.3 percent, was one of the steepest. But, like the state, the Phoenix area’s poverty numbers were still among the highest for a metro area — only Houston, Tampa, Los Angeles, Orlando, Miami, Riverside, San Antonio and Detroit were worse.
Compared to some other areas in the state, however, Phoenix is doing relatively well. Yuma, Pima, Mohave and Coconino counties had poverty rates ranging from 16 to 19.9 percent, according to the census.