Juana Fernandez must rely on
the Community Food Bank

Ben Kirkby, The Arizona Daily Star


Wednesday, 3 November 1999

900,000 Arizonans now live in poverty, state report says

By Enric Volante
The Arizona Daily Star

Arizona's population grew fast in the last decade, a state report says, but the number living in poverty grew much faster.

The number of people living below the federal poverty level soared nearly 90 percent since 1989, while the state population grew about 30 percent, said Ginny Hildebrand, chairwoman of the Hunger Advisory Council of the Arizona Department of Economic Security.

The council's report on hunger says Arizona has almost 900,000 people living below the poverty level, up from 475,000 nearly a decade ago.

``One of the things we see here is there are more people working, but still unable to provide for the basic needs of their families,'' said Hildebrand, who also heads the Arizona Association of Food Banks.

Food bank officials ``have just about tripled almost our food distribution to keep up with the demand that's at our doors at a time when food stamps are declining and the poverty numbers are going up.''

In Arizona, 41 percent of households receiving help with food have at least one adult working, according to the report issued last week. It calls hunger a critical issue for the state.

Karen Lugo agreed yesterday as she wheeled a cart of bread, baby formula, and other items out of the Tucson Community Food Bank to help her family make it through the month.

Lugo, 26, cares for her three children while her husband works in a Super Kmart store for about $21,000 a year.

``It's a good amount that he brings home, but it's just not enough,'' Lugo said.

``You get done with the $410-a-month rent and utilities of 200-and-something and you're pretty much left with nothing,'' she said. ``I can work, but who's going to watch my kids?''

Her friend, Johanna Rankin, is a full-time sheriff's dispatcher earning about $22,000 a year. But as a single mom having trouble collecting child support she relies on the food bank to help feed her two children, she said.

She bristled as she recalled asking state officials for assistance under a program for children of low-income families.

``Basically, I was told that I had some nerve going in there, that I had too much money,'' she recalled.

The two mothers said families need relief from low wages and high day-care costs.

The federal poverty level is $16,700 a year for a family of four.

But that figure is based on a 1950s formula that is outdated, said John Schwarz, a University of Arizona professor of political science.

``If you took the same formula that they used in 1955 and updated that formula to be based on the standard of living in 1998, it would be over $28,000 a year for a family of four,'' he said.

The latest U.S. Census Bureau figures, scheduled for release today, estimate the number of poor people in Arizona at 719,413 for 1996.

That's 15.8 percent of Arizonans, down from 16.3 percent in 1995 and 18.5 percent in 1993, Census officials reported. But it's higher than the 1989 figure of 14.7 percent.

``The important trend here is that poverty is on the decline and has been for the last three or four years,'' said Marshall Vest, a UA economics and business researcher.

But he said no one has measured which Arizonans are sharing in the prosperity of recent years.

A study by the Washington-based Center for Policy and Priorities found that the gap between the wealthy and the poor widened from the mid-1980s through 1996.

In Arizona, Vest said, that gap was widening faster than in any other state. But no one has studied what's happened since 1997.

Arizona's poverty of 15.8 percent compares to a national figure of 13.7 percent, or 36.5 million people.