Arizona poverty remains among highest in nation despite recent improvements


Despite posting a sharp decrease in its poverty rate over the last two years, Arizona continued to have some of the highest poverty in the nation in 2016, the latest Census numbers show.

Arizona’s poverty rate of 16.4 percent was well above the national rate of 14 percent that year, and ranged from a high of 38 percent below the poverty line in Apache County and a low of 10.1 percent in neighboring Greenlee County, according to the Census’ American Community Survey.

The numbers did not come as a surprise to advocates and economists, who said the state is still struggling to climb out of the recession and is hindered by a poor education system and low-wage jobs. The state had the eighth-highest poverty rate in 2016.

“We still have far too many (in poverty) and we’re still doing far too little,” to pull them out, said Cynthia Zwick, executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association.

The federal poverty threshold for a family of four in 2016 was $24,563, according to standards set by the Department of Health and Human Services.

The Census Bureau said that Arizona saw a 1.8 percent decline between 2014 and 2016 in the number of people living below the poverty line, which means an estimated 91,000 Arizonans climbed out of poverty in that period. But more than 1.1 million in Arizona still fell below the threshold.

The national poverty rate fell by 1.5 percent in the same period, according to the Census.

While he did not challenge the Census numbers, Valley economist Elliott Pollack said the focus on statewide numbers is “literally meaningless,” because it fails to capture the gap between starkly different communities in the state.

Taken by itself, the Greater Phoenix area has a lower poverty rate than the nation and a higher median income increase, Pollack said, while rural communities struggle.

“We’re talking about totally different animals,” Pollack said.

Median income in the Phoenix area was 107 percent of the national average in 2006 before dropping “like a ton of bricks” during the recession, to bottom out at 91.3 percent of the U.S. average, he said. But Valley incomes have climbed back above the national average since then, he said.

Still, Zwick said, the number of jobs paying less than $21,000 rose to 28 percent of the state’s employment in 2016. She said entry-level positions that people might have used as a springboard in the past are now often contracted out and “jobs with retirement programs are few and far between.”

“All of this can be tied to wages,” Zwick said. “The employment structure has changed.”

About half of the people who lost jobs in the recession took low-wage positions where they were “under-employed,” or overqualified and underpaid with fewer benefits, Zwick said.

Immigrants and minority groups were hit especially hard. She said immigrant families can face poverty into second and third generations while they establish themselves in this country. Arizona also has the nation’s third-largest number of American Indians, a third of whom live in poverty in vast rural communities, Zwick said.

While paychecks have been slow to increase, so too has public assistance for those in need, said Pati Urias, a spokeswoman for the Children’s Action Alliance. She blamed the “incremental change” in the state’s poverty to its “stringent and restrictive rules” on funding public assistance.

Programs like Temporary Assistance for Needy Families are “absolutely critical for people to pull themselves away from a life of poverty,” Urias said. That includes the 26 percent of Arizona children who live in poverty, according to data from the alliance.

“They need socks, they need clothes, they need things,” Urias said.

She and Zwick said family support programs have helped lower the poverty rate, and both called for expanding instead of cutting what has proved to be a lifeline for so many.

Children in impoverished neighborhoods have less access to resources, tutoring and other programs, which makes it too easy for them to fall later in life.

“The education system has failed us,” Zwick said.

Senate panel votes to handcuff cities on tenant protections


A Senate panel voted Monday to slam the door on future efforts by cities, towns and counties to enact their own regulations to protect tenants.

HB 2115 would leave untouched any ordinance that already was in place at the beginning of the year. But the measure, approved by the Senate Government Committee on a 4-3 party-line vote, says anything new would be strictly off limits.

The measure, which already has passed the House, now goes to the full Senate.

Moments later, the same committee approved, on the same party-line vote, HB 2358 which spells out that landlords are free to immediately evict tenants even after they have accepted partial payment of rent from a government program or even a church or housing assistance agency.

That came despite concerns from Zaida Dedolph of Wildfire, formerly the Arizona Community Action Association, that such a radical change from existing law will only exacerbate the state’s housing situation. She pointed out the move comes on the heels of a new report which shows Arizona is the third worst in the nation in having a supply of affordable housing.

The vote on HB 2115 preempting local regulations came over objections from representatives from various communities who urged lawmakers to butt out.

“The fact that different cities have different regulations is a good thing,” said Alex Vidal who lobbies on behalf of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

For example, he said in places like Yuma and Phoenix it might be appropriate to have some requirement about air conditioning or other cooling and even a requirement that an apartment be kept below a certain temperature.

“But in places like Flagstaff or Sedona or up north, the snow removal or heating might be a bigger concern,” Vidal said.

The measure is being pushed by the Arizona Multihousing Association which represents landlords throughout the state.

Lobbyist Jake Hinman told lawmakers that the Arizona Landlord-Tenant Act, first adopted in 1972, is sufficient to set out the rules governing the obligations of those who own homes and apartments and those who rent them. And he said the fact that most of the state’s 91 cites have so far chosen not to adopt their own codes proves that is true.

In fact, Hinman’s group originally sought to force repeal of existing local ordinances but was forced to back down when the House refused to go along. So he has agreed to settle to allow what is in place to remain.

New regulations or changes to existing ones, however, would be strictly forbidden.

But Ken Volk, who has worked with tenants for more than 24 years and helped push for the comprehensive housing code that exists in Tempe, said the Landlord-Tenant Act is really insufficient to protect those who rent.

“State law is vague,” he said, with words like “reasonable” and “appropriate” for what landlords are expected to provide in things like climate, water temperature and water pressure; another section of what’s forbidden uses words like “unsanitary” and “faulty.”

“None of those set standards,” Volk said, standards he said are necessary for not only renters but also neighbors and the general community.

He said the experience of what state lawmakers think is appropriate convinces him that local governments need to retain their ability to enact something more.

For example, Volk noted the Legislature approved a measure several years ago dealing with what happens in cases of bedbug infestations. On paper, he said, landlords are not supposed to rent out a unit they know has problems.

“Landlords will not admit that there was a prior bedbug problem,” Volk said. “What they do is they try to blame the current tenant and get the tenant to be held financially liable.”

Hinman, however, said preemption helps remove confusion for both landlords and tenants to have multiple regulations in different communities.

HB 2358 deals with the separate issue of what happens when landlords have accepted payments made on a tenant’s behalf.

Hinman said the legislation is necessary to protect landlords following a court ruling that precluded them from evicting a tenant for other violations. The court said once the landlord has accepted at least partial payment of rent – in this case, Section 8 rental assistance for low-income residents – he or she cannot then turn around and oust them.

“We have to have that remedy,” Hinman said.

But Pamela Bridge, director of advocacy for Community Legal Services, said the language is overly broad.

She said organizations that provide housing assistance, including churches, send checks to landlords under the presumption they’re helping to keep someone in an apartment. This bill, she said, allows the landlord to take the money and still turn the person out on the street that same month.

But Christopher Walker, an attorney who is involved in landlord-tenant issues, told lawmakers the legislation actually will help low-income tenants in the long run.

He warned that if landlords can’t enforce other rules because they’ve taken a check they will simply decide to no longer participate in the Section 8 program.

“That doesn’t help the vulnerable population,” Walker said.

“Landlords are concerned they don’t have the ability to manage and oversee their properties,” he said. “They don’t have the ability to remove someone that’s a risk.”

This House-passed measure also now goes to the full Senate.