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New numbers show poverty continues to climb in Arizona

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WASHINGTON – The portion of Arizonans living in poverty hit 19 percent last year, the sixth-highest rate in the nation, according to new data from the Census Bureau.

It was the third straight increase in the poverty rate for Arizona, one of 16 states that saw a statistically significant rise from 2010 to 2011, according to the bureau’s American Community Survey statistics.

“That’s not terribly surprising,” said Brian Simpson, spokesman for the Association of Arizona Food Banks. He noted that one person in five in Arizona struggles with hunger.

“A 19 percent poverty rate is more or less telling you the same thing,” Simpson said. “It’s real and it is what we expected.”

While poverty was rising, incomes were falling. The bureau said median income in Arizona fell 2.9 percent in 2011, to $46,709, while income nationally fell 1.3 percent, to a median of $50,502.

The national decline in household income was described as “ugly” in a press release by Center on Budget and Policy Priorities Robert Greenstein.

Experts said the numbers in Arizona reflect the state’s recent economic problems. Lee McPheters, a research professor at the W.P. Carey School of Economics at Arizona State University, noted the probable link between unemployment and poverty.

“From the labor-market perspective, there is likely a ’cause and effect’ from Arizona’s loss of over 300,000 jobs in 2008-2010 and increases in poverty levels in the state,” he said in an email.

Others said the numbers are not a fluke.

“This is not a temporary snapshot,” said Joseph Garcia, a spokesman for the Morrison Institute for Public Policy. “This is a long-term portrait.”

The 19 percent poverty rate translates into more than 1.2 million Arizonans who were living in poverty. The national poverty rate in 2011 was 15.9 percent.

The bureau determines the poverty level on a sliding scale. It ranges from an income of $10,788 for a person 65 or older who lives alone, up to $50,059 for a family of nine.

“We rely a lot on the service worker industry (in Arizona), and that does not pay well,” said Cynthia Zwick, executive director at the Arizona Community Action Association.

She said that people need to start being paid a “living wage.”

“Minimum wage is not a living wage,” Zwick said. The minimum wage in Arizona is $7.65 an hour, compared to a federal rate of $7.25 an hour.

Simpson agreed with Zwick, saying that higher wages would help address poverty.

“We need to put people back to work – earning a living wage,” he said. “But that’s easier said than done.”

Garcia said one way out is increased education, noting that low levels of education bolster the cycle of poverty.

“If you come from a low-income family, chances are your parents didn’t go to college, and chances are you won’t either,” he said. “There is a syndrome connected to poverty, and education is a great equalizer.”

While she expected an increase in the state’s poverty rate, from 17.4 percent in 2010, Zwick was surprised by the size of the increase.

“Wow,” she said, on hearing the 19 percent rate. “I’m surprised to the extent that it’s higher than I thought it would be.”

While the national poverty level has remained steady, Arizona’s increase means continued hardship for the state’s poor.

“You hear we’re in recovery – not at this level, we have not seen any relief,” Simpson said. “Improvement in the economy has not been felt by many households in Arizona.”

Long-term plans to lower poverty in the state must begin with changing the conversation, Zwick said.

“We need to break down the myths about victims (of poverty),” she said. “People don’t want to sit back and claim benefits. People want to be employed.”