UA Workshop Discovers Barriers Among Poor
Students who surveyed low-income households in Tucson found that housing costs remain the biggest challenge and that barriers to the utilization of services include feeling uncomfortable receiving assistance and lack of transportation.

By Lori Harwood, UA College of Social and Behavioral Sciences
May 18, 2016


Shauntel Lines explains the project to a community member.
Shauntel Lines explains the project to a community member. (Photo: Anna Augustowska)

About half of Tucson households whose inhabitants live below the poverty line do not use services provided by nonprofit and charitable organizations, according to findings presented by University of Arizona students from the Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop.

During the second annual community forum, held at Habitat for Humanity Tucson, students presented data from the Tucson Wellbeing Survey to more than 100 community members, city officials and nonprofit organizers.

The event was the culmination of the students' semester-long efforts to collect data from low-income households, after the class spent the year focused on identifying potential barriers experienced by low-income households in getting assistance from agencies and nonprofits.

The Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop was developed to help local governments and nonprofit organizations better understand the causes and consequences of poverty in Tucson.

"Tucson has a high and unfortunately persistent problem with poverty, with about 25 percent of our city population living below the poverty threshold," said Brian Mayer, associate professor in the UA School of Sociology.

Mayer said that the focus of next year's research will be determined by community partners and local nonprofits. "We want the data we produce to be usable by the community," he said.

Mayer teaches the course, which recently received the Community Partner Award from the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences' Magellan Circle, with sociology graduate student Amalia Ashley, a fellow in the Agnese Nelms Haury Program in Environment and Social Justice. The workshop is a partnership involving the college, the mayor's Commission on Poverty and local nonprofits, including Habitat for Humanity Tucson, the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona, after an initial gift from the Diane and Bruce Halle Foundation.

"When the students gather information, it helps us do our jobs better," said T. VanHook, CEO of Habitat for Humanity Tucson. "We need to look at long-term strategies for ending the cycles of poverty in our community."

The students' poster presentations are available online.

During the semester, 36 students collected 205 surveys in six neighborhoods designated by the census as having high poverty rates. Eighty of the respondents had completed last year’s survey as well.

Fifty-one percent of the respondents fell below the federal poverty threshold, which in 2015 was $24,250 for a four-person household. An additional 40 percent fell within 200 percent of the threshold.  Only 13 percent of the sample was unemployed, and 31 percent was employed full time.

One of the big findings from last year's survey was how many poor households were not accessing state or charitable support, which led to this year’s focus on discovering barriers to service utilization.

The researchers found slightly higher levels of service utilization in this year's survey. In fact, 84 percent of households below the poverty line used some form of state support, most commonly through the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But 50 percent of those below the poverty line still reported never using nonprofit or charitable services.

"We suspected that folks may not be knowledgeable of all services," Mayer said. "Yet close to 80 percent of everyone that we spoke with reported being generally knowledgeable across a broad array of services from health care, food assistance, cash assistance, housing assistance, and family and child assistance."

Mayer said that the main issues that emerged for why people did not access services were that they felt uncomfortable receiving assistance, lack of transportation and time, and language barriers.

Like last year, housing was a primary concern for respondents: Eighty percent of those living below the poverty threshold were housing cost-burdened, which means paying more than 30 percent of a household’s total income toward rent.

The finding that housing is one of the largest challenges facing low-income households was reinforced by the students' online survey of 165 Tucson nonprofit service providers. Asked what services were in highest demand that could not be met or were regularly referred out to other organizations, the top four referrals or unmet needs listed were housing services (paying rent, paying utilities, emergency housing and finding housing).

The workshop also demonstrates the UA's commitment to 100% Engagement, which is meant to connect classroom instruction with workforce experiences.

UA sociology major Anissa Martinez said that the class strengthened her communication and time-management skills and confirmed for her that she wants to work for a nonprofit after she graduates next year. 

Devin Crim, a care, health and society major, added: "It was so different from just being in a lecture and taking notes. You go outside and really engage and learn that way. I wish more courses were like this."

Lin Zappia, a double major in history and gender and women's studies, said the project reminded her of how poverty affects children. She recalls being swarmed by a group of kids outside an apartment complex during her first interview. "They were really excited that we were there and talking to them. One of the first things they did was ask us for money, which was shocking from kids who looked like they could have been in kindergarten."

Learn more about the workshop from this video:


Resources for the media

Brian Mayer

UA School of Sociology