On May 15, the University of Arizona School of Sociology hosted the first Poverty in Tucson Community Forum at Habitat for Humanity Tucson. More than 100 community members, city officials, and nonprofit organizers showed up to hear students in the Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop present the results of their semester-long efforts to collect data from low-income households across Tucson.
The Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop is a partnership between the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, the Mayor’s Commission on Poverty, and local nonprofits, such as Habitat for Humanity Tucson, the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, which support the research.
“Tucson has a high and unfortunately persistent problem with poverty with about 25 percent of our city population living below the poverty threshold,” said Brian Mayer, associate professor in the School of Sociology, who teaches the course along with sociology graduate student Julia Smith. Mayer is also a fellow in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. “Even though we know that, we wanted to learn more about what the lives were like of low-income Tucsonans. How are these households coping and what strategies are they using?”
Over seven weeks, the students knocked on 2,000 doors and completed 257 surveys in eight neighborhoods designated by Census as having high poverty rates. More than half their sample lived in “extreme poverty,” which translates into making less than half the poverty threshold.
During the forum, Mayer gave a short summary presentation, and groups of students explained posters representing their findings. (Posters can be viewed here.)
“A lot of the people in our sample were working full time or part time. Also a large number were fairly well educated,” said Mayer. Health“One thing we talked about in class was the myth of the unemployed welfare recipient, that most people are just at home living off the government.”
The number one thing respondents were struggling with was housing costs.
“When we asked people to prioritize their expenses, if number one was rent, food was very rarely in the top five,” says Mayer. “It says we are doing a pretty good job with food assistance.” Even so, about one-third of the extreme poor were regularly skipping meals.
Several students commented about how impressed they were by the resourcefulness of the people they spoke to.
“I was surprised by how resilient people were,” said Sarah Schwartz, a student in care, health, and society and in nutritional sciences. “People were really struggling, but they were happy and doing what they could.”
The percentage of interviewees who were not using government or charitable assistance was one of the biggest surprises for the group.
Almost 25 percent of those living in extreme poverty did not use government assistance. The main government support used by respondents was the food assistance program, SNAP.
Among the extreme poor, more than half reported having never receiving any type of nonprofit or charitable funding.
“Most weren’t using them, because they weren’t aware of them,” Brandon Peacock, a student in the class, said. “When we gave them the information sheet, they were seeing the names of these organizations for the first time. We saw a very low percentage of people who had attempted to get help from a nonprofit organization and were turned away.”
“This is something we can help address,” said Mayer. Mayer said they plan to interview the same households next year, and he invited local nonprofits to add their names to the service provider list and to help him craft future questions.
In addition to helping collect data that can be used to improve the lives of the poor, the Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop demonstrates the UA’s commitment to the goal of 100 percent student engagement.
“I liked that we actually received hands-on experience,” said Chantelle Figueroa, a sociology and psychology major. “It wasn’t just sitting in the classroom; we were able to talk to people.”