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Census: Number of Arizonans living in ‘poverty areas’ jumped in 2010

WASHINGTON — The number of Arizona residents living in concentrated “poverty areas” grew significantly in the first decade of the century, according to a new Census report.

From 2000 to 2010, Arizonans living in poverty areas — census tracts with poverty rates of 20 percent or more — rose from 24 percent of the state’s residents to 33.4 percent.

Arizona was one of 14 states, along with the District of Columbia, that had more than 30 percent of its population living in a poverty area in 2010, the Census said.

Experts in the state said the poverty area numbers merely reflect the fact that Arizona was hit hard by the recession and poverty generally grew.

Still, one advocate for the poor called the poverty area data “definitely a startling statistic.”

Amanda Lee, outreach and community development manager at Arizona Community Action Association, said it is just another indicator of the “new face of poverty” in the state — the working poor.

Tom Rex, associate director of the Center for Competitiveness and Prosperity Research at Arizona State University’s W. P. Carey School of Business, said the numbers are not surprising given the state’s overall economic condition.

Arizona was one of the states hit hardest by the recession, he said, and it continues to exceed national poverty rates for two reasons – low wages and a low employment rate.

“Arizona, like the nation, will go up and down with the economic cycle,” Rex said.

In May, the latest month for which state employment numbers are available from the Labor Department, Arizona saw the number of jobs go down. It was second only to Florida for the largest over-the-month decrease in employment from April to May.

Jim Chang, Arizona state demographer in the Department of Administration, said he also sees the state’s slow recovery from the recession reflected in its high poverty rates.

“I think it is more an economic issue than a demographic issue,” Chang said of the poverty areas report.

Chang said the total number of people in poverty in Arizona has grown, and the Census-tract data just provides a different way of looking at poverty in the state.

Lee said mid-wage jobs in Arizona suffered the biggest loss in the recession, and that new low-wage jobs have accounted for most of the recovery. That leaves working families struggling with low incomes, she said.

In 2000, Mohave, Yavapai, Maricopa and Greenlee counties were the only ones with fewer than 25 percent of their residents living in poverty areas, according to the Census. By 2010, every county in the state had at least 25 percent of residents living in a poverty area.

Many of the counties with high percentages — more than 80 percent — of people living in poverty areas were clustered in and around American Indian reservations.

“Many of the reservations are geographically isolated, that is part of the problem,” Rex said.

That isolation can be compared to Arizona’s rural communities where there are generally not as many job opportunities for low-income families, he said.