Poverty workshop zeroes in on impact of poverty in Tucson

The workshop Understanding Poverty Part 2: Systems Change and Local Action, held last month, delved into the reasons for and impact of poverty on people.

Hosted by the Community Foundation for Southern Arizona, in partnership with the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families, Pima County Community and Workforce Development, and Social Venture Partners Tucson, the event featured over 60 attendees, including Primavera Foundation staff.

Led by Bonnie Bazata, the Ending Poverty Program Manager with Pima County Community & Workforce Development, the event featured a presentation by Jim Kiser, author of the Opportunity Report and former editorial page editor and columnist for the Arizona Daily Star.

The event was the second in a series, the first which took place in October 2023 was a part of Primavera Foundation’s 40th Anniversary events. It touched on the difficulty of breaking out of generational poverty, the fact that children suffer poverty at the highest rate of any age group, and Tucson’s lack of opportunity, noting that it is in the bottom 10 of 100 major cities for child opportunity.

Kiser’s presentation provided key takeaways from his report on opportunity and poverty in Tucson and Pima County, stressing the importance of economic connectedness and sharing observations of the current system and ways to tackle poverty.

The Opportunity Report provides a look at pockets and neighborhoods where poverty is prevalent. One of the main findings of the report is that creating mixed-income communities goes a long way in improving two of the most important indicators for future success: neighborhoods and schools.

Kiser also cited a study led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, concluding that “intergenerational mobility is a local problem, one that could potentially be tackled using place-based policies.”

“We live very economically segregated lives,” Kiser said. “Many Tucsonans will not be surprised that the map shows Tucson’s economic segregation has a clear dividing line: River Road.”

The study also found that economic connectedness – the extent to which people with low incomes are friends with people with high incomes – is one of the strongest predictors of upward mobility.

The lack of connection between higher-income and lower-income families has a negative impact on everyone, as those who grow up in wealthy families are likely to move down the social ladder, while those who grow up less wealthy are unlikely to move up.

After Kiser’s presentation, Bazata spoke about systems change and why active intervention is necessary to combat the status quo of systemic inequality.

One of her topics was the framing of poverty and how it is much more than a lack of income at a point in time. The presentation included the following quote attributed to the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco:

“It is the systematic denial of opportunities and choice, which results in the human experience of social exclusion and social vulnerability. Our brains respond to social exclusion similar to physical pain. It has serious implications for people’s mental, emotional, and behavioral health.”

A concept that tied in with that topic was the idea that those who are systemically oppressed become chronologically old at a young age.

This concept comes from the book Weathering: The Extraordinary Stress of Ordinary Life in an Unjust Society by Arline T. Geronimus, which explores the effects of systemic oppression – including racism and classism – and the consequences of social exclusion on the body.

Geronimous found that people of color and low-income Americans are more likely to suffer more of the stressors that lead to advanced aging, and they are more likely to be weathered, weathered severely and weathered at younger ages.

She also found that the degree to which people experience weathering has more to do with how society treats us than how well we take care of ourselves, meaning that while individual behaviors are crucial for creating change, it will take active intervention on a systemic level to uproot the structural issues at the heart of why poverty persists.

Looking ahead, there were two questions posed that will be at the heart of any plans or proposed solutions going forward: Whose behavior do we need to change? Whose behavior is holding a system in place?

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