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Tucson ranked sixth-poorest among nation’s metro areas in 2011

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WASHINGTON – Tucson was the sixth-poorest of the nation’s large metropolitan areas in 2011, with a poverty rate of 20.4 percent, according to new data from the Census Bureau.

That rate, which was well above the national poverty rate of 15.9 percent last year, was attributed to the region’s high unemployment, slow economic growth, low education levels and low-paying jobs.

“Obviously it is a statistic we’re not happy about,” said Mike Varney, president and CEO of the Tucson Metro Chamber.

He pointed to the region’s unemployment – which has hovered between 8.4 and 9.4 percent over the last three years – as a major factor.

“No paychecks and no jobs mean problems in the household,” Varney said.

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said the numbers were not surprising, but he thinks they are “down a bit” from previous years. He said one problem is the high rate of poverty among children in Pima County, which is included in the Tucson metro area.

The sixth-place ranking was among just over 100 metropolitan areas with populations over 500,000. The report was released last week.

Marshall Vest, director of the University of Arizona’s Economic and Business Research Center, described Tucson as having very slow economic growth, with a consistently high rate of poverty compared to the rest of the nation.

“There is little demand for additional housing, offices, retail space – therefore construction, and industries related to growth operate at a reduced level,” Vest said Monday. “There is very low employment growth. Employers are cautious.”

An official at Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities Inc. agreed that improvements are coming slowly to the metro area.

“Our region is in economic recovery but like many markets, it is not fast enough,” said Laura Shaw, a spokeswoman for TREO, an economic development agency.

Shaw said the traditional elements of Tucson’s economy are now beginning to recover, and it is critical that the region “not revert to reliance on population growth to drive our economy again.”

Vest and others also pointed to the impact of high poverty rates of the Tohono O’odham and Pascua Yaqui reservations in Pima County.

In Arizona, 4.5 percent of the population is American Indian and in Pima County they account for 3.2 percent of the population. That 3.2 percent is “a large number compared to other metropolitan areas around the country,” Vest said.

“Income levels, unemployment rates and poverty are much higher on reservations, and are significant factors compared to the rest of the country,” he said.

Varney said low-income jobs are also a problem for the region.

“We have a service-driven, tourist industry where there is an over-abundance of lower paying jobs,” he said.

Varney said there are a number of things that can be done to lower the area’s poverty level, but he believes education is most important because it will help capture more high-paying jobs.

“Education is the pathway to get 21st century jobs,” said Varney, adding that education will prepare workers for jobs in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Shaw and Vest agreed that education, in Vest’s words, is “absolutely the key.” Vest said Tucson will create a lot of jobs in the future – the question is whether or not they will be good jobs.

“There’s a lot of growth yet to come and a lot of questions to be answered,” he said. “You need to have more jobs and a vibrant economy for the poverty rate and the unemployment rate to decline.”

In addition to education, Rothschild said it is important to “educate people about what the problem is, and different ways to approach it concretely.”

That includes helping improve children’s reading levels, and creating opportunities for them to find jobs and internships.