Poverty Project Focuses on Neighborhood Satisfaction, Health

UA student Reneé Villaman explains findings from the Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop to community members.

UA student Reneé Villaman explains findings from the Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop to community members.

University of Arizona students presented findings on neighborhood life and satisfaction from the Tucson Wellbeing Survey to more than 200 community members, city officials and nonprofit organizers — their largest audience in four years.

The Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop community forum, held at Habitat for Humanity Tucson, marked the culmination of the students' semester-long efforts to collect data from low-income households. The annual workshop was developed to help local government and nonprofit organizations better understand the causes and consequences of poverty, which impacts 25 percent of households and more than 33 percent of children in Tucson.

Under the direction of UA sociology professor Brian Mayer, the workshop is a research collaboration involving the School of Sociology, the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and local nonprofits, including Habitat for Humanity Tucson, the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona and the Community Food Bank for Southern Arizona.

This year's class interviewed 250 households from eight high-poverty census tracts in Tucson. Among the respondents, 14.8 percent were unemployed; the remainder were retired or working full or part time. This year's survey introduced questions on neighborhood life and satisfaction, as well as health and quality of life.

Neighborhood Life and Satisfaction

The project deepened its partnership with Habitat for Humanity Tucson this year, according to Mayer. The survey included questions to assist with Habitat's neighborhood partnership program, such as whether the respondents consider their neighborhood a good place to raise children.

"We use the data to help us know how to approach the community members in the neighborhoods," said T. VanHook, chief executive officer of Habitat for Humanity Tucson.

Fifty-three percent of respondents were satisfied with where they lived, but there were geographic differences. Rated highest were central Tucson (63.6 percent) and South Tucson (61.3), with the east side near Davis-Monthan Air Force Base (44.1) and the north side near the Amphi neighborhood (35.2) rating lower.

Sixty-three percent of households complained about stray cats and dogs in their neighborhood, poor street conditions, speeding vehicles, drug use and litter.

Mayer, also a fellow in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice, noted that many support services are located in the downtown and South Tucson areas. "There are far fewer charities that are located farther north, so people may feel isolated and disconnected from help," he said.

Another possible explanation for the neighborhood variation is tied to a different survey result: Those who rent are 1.6 times more likely than those who own their home to be dissatisfied with their neighborhood.

"In the north, home ownership rates are low, only 30 to 40 percent," Mayer said. "Amphi High School teachers told us they have a 46 percent turnover rate in students from year to year. This has much to do with the rent and people leaving to find affordable housing."

The transient nature of a high concentration of renters also can undermine community cohesiveness and satisfaction. Conversely, the research team found a tighter community network in South Tucson.

"Last year, we looked at collective efficacy," Mayer said. "People in South Tucson, especially in more Hispanic-dominated areas, felt like they could call on each other to a much higher degree."

UA student Nuve Brambila, who conducted surveys on the south side, was impressed by this when she conducted her interviews. When asked about what they do when struggling for money, 42.9 percent of respondents said they work overtime and 28.6 percent said they ask family for help.

"There is this idea that people living under the poverty level are lazy and just using government resources," Brambila said. "But I found that these people were very hard-working. They were really connected and tried to seek help from each other when trying to overcome poverty."

Health and Quality of Life

Using questions from the World Health Organization, the students asked respondents about their health. Twenty-eight percent of those living at the poverty level rated their health as poor or fair. This was higher than the 16 percent of those living in extreme poverty who rated their health poor or fair, probably because of the increased governmental health benefits available to the lower-income group. The national average for those who rate themselves in poor or fair health is 10 percent, so poverty remains correlated with poorer health outcomes.

Housing, Food and the Service Gap

As in previous years, housing overburden (spending more than 30 percent of income on housing) remained a problem, with 92.5 percent of those at the poverty level being overburdened — which translates into less money for food, health care and educational expenses.

In addition, 18 percent of respondents cut meals because of a lack of money. The data also revealed that without Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefits, there would be a 40 percent increase in food insecurity. 

The number of homes not accessing government and charitable assistance also remained high, with 46.2 percent of those in extreme poverty reporting that they never use government assistance. In addition, 48.7 percent of this group reported never receiving help from a charity or nonprofit.

"I spoke with some people who have negative views about receiving government assistance," said Hannah Hertenstein, a major in sociology and family studies and human development. 

Haley Urban, a major in sociology and care, health and society, said that several respondents also mentioned ways that programs were challenging to access, such as being open only during their work hours or being hard to reach via public transportation.

Mayer analyzed this "service gap" for the four years the class has been collecting data. The number of people receiving government assistance has decreased by nearly 20 percent; however, the number of people accessing charitable services has increased by 15 percent.

"As the state retracts from the social safety net, it looks like charities are reaching more people," Mayer said.

Real-World Experience for Students

Students in the course gained hands-on social research experience, an enhanced understanding of poverty-related issues and real-world professional skills.

"I couldn't ask for a better experience, because it was so valuable to my education and with what I want to do with my career," said Hertenstein, who wants to do community work.

Students also mentioned how the experience taught them time-management and communication skills.

Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild said he appreciates that the class produces useful information — and also cultivates compassion and a determination to act.

"Knowledge without action is really a waste," Rothschild said.

Next year, Mayer said, a new course called "Building Healthy Communities" will be added as a follow-up to the workshop. Students will work directly with the Tucson Fire Department's TC-3 program, a collaborative care program designed to assist the most vulnerable members of the community by connecting them to appropriate resources.

Brian Thompson, a captain and TC-3 manager with the Tucson Fire Department, attended the forum with several other firefighters.

"It is really exciting what these students are doing," Thompson said. "We work closely with Dr. Mayer, and he's been a huge advocate for the TC-3 program."

Added Mayer: "Through this collaboration, students will be challenged to develop innovative solutions to help people who regularly call 911 for non-emergency reasons find the types of help that they need."

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