A new collaborative project is underway to assess the exact situation and needs of those living in poverty in Tucson, with plans to eventually inform the implementation of programs across the city. 

In 2011, Tucson had the eighth highest poverty rate among the nation's large metropolitan areas, at 18.7 percent.

The following year, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild established the Commission on Poverty to identify programs that could help reduce or alleviate poverty. As part of this mission, the commission joined with the University of Arizona College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, or SBS, in a year-long research project.

The commission established a research subgroup to work with SBS faculty members, and the group came up with a two-phase project: a multi-city analysis of best practices and a local survey.

"We are proud to be collaborating with the city of Tucson and local nonprofits to address the issue of poverty in our community," said John Paul Jones III, dean of SBS.

SBS is contributing half of the costs associated with the research project and the commission has matched the same contribution amount with a $19,000 grant from the Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation. The funding was secured by thePrimavera Foundation and Our Family Services, which provide shelter and support to homeless children, youth and families.

"For over 30 years, Primavera has been providing pathways out of poverty," said Peggy Hutchison, chief executive officer of Primavera, which helps alleviate poverty through safe, affordable housing, workforce development and neighborhood revitalization.

"Our goal is to solve poverty issues in Southern Arizona through community economic development and economic opportunity. This project is an important step," Hutchison said.

UA sociology professor Lane Kenworthy, who serves on the commission, will be spearheading the project along with sociology graduate student Julia Smith. Smith has two master's degrees from the London School of Economics and Political Science and experience as an analyst for a firm specializing in the Low Income Housing Tax Credit Program.

Kenworthy says the two-phase project will answer three questions: Why does Tucson have a relatively high poverty rate for a major metropolitan area? Is just looking at the poverty rate misleading or incomplete as an indicator of how people are doing in their lives? What can Tucson do to make things better?

Phase I of the research project is to identify policies, programs or strategies that have helped to alleviate poverty in other cities. Smith is in the early stages of this research and is identifying the best comparison cities for Tucson. For example, she noted that five years ago New York City received a $5.7 million grant to replicate its most promising anti-poverty programs in seven other cities. One of those cities, San Antonio, is more comparable to Tucson, so Smith is planning to examine some of their results.

The first phase will conclude Dec. 31 with the delivery of a white paper to the Mayor's Commission on Poverty that will include case studies of approximately five cities, along with recommendations on successful programs that might be plausible and effective in Tucson.

"My research on the growth of women's poverty in the U.S. during the 1980s and 1990s showed that the determinants of poverty are highly contextual," Jones said.

"In other words, what causes poverty in one region is not what causes it in another. As a result, we need both good data analysis and well-informed, locally based solutions," he said. "This is why it is so promising to pair SBS’s research resources with the knowledge base of people working on the ground here in Tucson."

Phase II of the project, beginning in January, is a survey of Tucsonans who live in poverty.

Kenworthy and Smith, along with students in the UA's "Poverty in American Cities" class, will be interviewing about 250 households living in poverty in the greater Tucson area. Students will conduct the interviews, input the data and provide preliminary analysis during the spring semester.

The survey will help the commission get a better understanding of the form of poverty in Tucson rather than just the amount, answering the questions: Who has low income, for how long and why? How does this affect their material well-being? To what degree do people living in poverty have access to public goods and services that help to compensate for being low income?

"We want to flesh out people's real living circumstances," said Kenworthy, an expert in comparative analysis of poverty, globally and nationally, who maintains a blog called "Consider the Evidence" on related topics.

Also, involving undergraduates in the research project ties into UA President Ann Weaver Hart's goal of 100 percent engaged learning for students. 

"My hope is that this class will not only give students information on how people live," said Kenworthy, "but also how social scientists and policy makers get information that they then use to make decisions."

The final report to the commission, scheduled for Aug. 15, 2014, will revisit the preliminary recommendation made in phase one, based on the new information that comes from the survey data.

"I look forward to reviewing the results of this study," Rothschild said. "Having information on the success or failure of other programs as well as more in-depth research into poverty in Tucson will be helpful as we develop ways to address poverty in our city and region."

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