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Poverty slipped in Arizona, but minorities continue to get hit hardest

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WASHINGTON –  Arizona’s poverty rate inched down to 18.6 percent in 2013, but poverty rates for minority groups in the state remained far above those of whites, according to data released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

Arizona’s overall poverty rate was well above the national rate of 15.8 percent, according to data from the bureau’s American Community Survey. When it came to poverty distribution, however, the state mirrored the national trend of minorities accounting for the majority of those in poverty.

“In the current poverty figures, unfortunately we see a worrisome unevenness,” said Arloc Sherman, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

In Arizona, that “unevenness” in 2013 ranged from an Asian poverty rate of 15.2 percent to American Indian poverty at 38.6 percent. In between were whites at 16. 3 percent, blacks at 22.9 percent and Hispanics at 28.9 percent.

The Census data could only provide poverty estimates down to the local level for the largest counties. But in Arizona’s most-populous areas – Maricopa, Pima and Pinal counties as well as metro Phoenix – the disparities between races is evident.

That came as little surprise to George Dean, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Urban League.

“There are several different reasons for it, and they have all been around a long time,” Dean said. “I don’t think it is anything new.”

He pointed to several factors that could be driving the state’s relatively high poverty rates, including a “not-the-best” education system, generally low wages and a slow recovery from the recession. All those factors hit people of color especially hard, he said.

While the state has struggled to recover from the recession, data released Thursday shows the Arizona economy improving, with median household incomes level and poverty rates falling.

But an improving economy can only do so much for minorities who fell farther during the recession and now have more of a climb to get back on their feet, Dean said.

Kelly McGowan, strategic initiatives manager at Arizona Community Action Association, said more attention needs to be focused on minority groups in the state.

“Communities of color continue to be disproportionately affected by poverty,” McGowan said. “I think that we as a community have to own the problem.”

McGowan said that she thinks much of the disparity along racial lines can be attributed to access to wealth and opportunity.

“We know that wealth creates opportunities in communities for college, and college creates opportunities for better-paying jobs,” she said. “There is lots of data on communities of color not having those same advantages.”

Dean said that before conditions can improve for minority groups in the state, people need to focus on the problem of poverty.

“Attention has been more focused on illegal immigrants and securing the border than making educational achievement, keeping people educated, and making jobs available – the things that get you out of poverty,” he said.

Sherman said any fight against poverty will require a cohesive effort among state, private and federal agencies. Until there is a concerted effort, he said, there will continue to be truth in the “pattern that some communities are the last hired and the first fired.”