UA Students in Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop Present Findings

University of Arizona students from the Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop presented the results of their semester-long efforts to collect data from low-income households last week.

During the second annual community forum – held at Habitat for Humanity Tucson—students presented data from the Tucson Wellbeing Survey to more than 100 community members, city officials and nonprofit organizer. This year’s class focused on identifying potential barriers experienced by low-income households in getting assistance from agencies and nonprofits.

The Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop was developed to help local governments and nonprofit organizations better understand the causes and consequences of poverty in Tucson.

"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 UA School of Sociology, who teaches the workshop course along with sociology graduate student Amalia Ashley.  Mayer is also a fellow in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice.

The Poverty Workshop, which recently received the Community Partner Award from the SBS Magellan Circle, is a partnership between the UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences (SBS), the Mayor’s Commission on Poverty, and local nonprofits, such as Habitat for Humanity Tucson, the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona, and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, following an initial gift from the Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation.

“When the students gather information, it helps us do our jobs better,” said T. VanHook, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Tucson. “We need to look at long-term strategies for ending the cycles of poverty in our community.”

During the semester, 36 students collected 205 surveys in six neighborhoods designated by the census as having high poverty rates. Eighty of the respondents completed last year’s survey as well.

Fifty-one percent of the respondents fell below the Federal Poverty Threshold; an additional 40 percent fell within 200 percent of the threshold.  Only 13 percent of the sample was unemployed, and 31 percent were employed full time.

One of the big findings from last year’s survey was how many poor households were not accessing state or charitable support, which led to this year’s focus on discovering barriers to service utilization.

The researchers found slightly higher levels of service utilization in this year’s survey. In fact, 84 percent of households below the poverty line used some form of state support, most commonly AHCCCS, or Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, and SNAP, or Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But 50 percent of those below the poverty line still reported never using nonprofit or charitable services.

“We suspected that folks may not be knowledgeable of all services,” said Mayer. “Yet close to 80 percent of everyone that we spoke with reported being generally knowledgeable across a broad array of services from health care, food assistance, cash assistance, housing assistance, and family and child assistance.”

Mayer said that the main issues that emerged for why people didn’t access services were that they felt uncomfortable receiving assistance, lack of transportation and time, and language barriers.

Like last year, housing was a primary concern for respondents: 80 percent of those living below the poverty threshold were housing cost-burdened, which means paying more than 30 percent of a household’s total income toward rent.

The finding that housing is one of the largest challenges facing low-income households was reinforced by the class’s online survey of 165 Tucson nonprofit service providers. When asked what services were in highest demand that could not be met or were regularly referred out to other organizations, housing services (paying rent, paying utilities, emergency housing, and finding housing) were the top four referrals or unmet needs listed.

The workshop also demonstrates the UA’s commitment to 100% student engagement, which is meant to connect classroom instruction with workforce experiences.

Sociology major Anissa Martinez said that the class strengthened her communication and time management skills and confirmed for her that she wants to work for a nonprofit after she graduates next year. 

“It was so different from just being in a lecture and taking notes,” added Devin Crim, a care, health and society major. “You go outside and really engage and learn that way. I wish more course were like this.”

Lin Zappia, who is a double major in history and gender and women’s studies, said the project reminded her of how poverty affects children. She recalls being swarmed by a group of kids outside an apartment complex during her first interview. “They were really excited that we were there and talking to them. One of the first things they did was ask us for money, which was shocking from kids who looks like they could have been in kindergarten.”

Mayer said that the focus of next year’s research will be determined by community partners and local nonprofits. “We want the data we produce to be usable by the community,” he said.

For more information on the project, go to

To view the students’ poster presentations, click here.

Published Date: 

05/16/2016 - 3:16pm