Ted Simons: Arizona's poverty rate is the highest in the nation and the state also ranks higher Than the national average for children in poverty. I spoke to Steve Seleznow, president and CEO of the Arizona community foundation, about poverty in Arizona.
And thank you so much for joining us tonight on "Arizona Horizon."
Steve Seleznow: Thank you. Pleased to be here.
Ted Simons: Let's talk about -- there is so much here. Let's talk about poverty. The poverty rate in Arizona. Where we stand right now.
Steve Seleznow: Well, first of all, let me say that what I want to share with you is that Arizona has many attributes and assets. And whenever you have a discussion about poverty, you tend to ignore the really great elements of a place or a state. I think we're all fortunate to live here. There are some areas where we really need to focus on. And I think we really need to look hard at the data that we have available to us to help us make the best possible choices that we can make as a state. If you look at most of the indicators around social health and poverty, and you look at how we rank and compare to other states across the country, and the vast majority of those nationally validated indicators, we typically end in the bottom 10% of all states. The lowest five. Not on every indicator. But on most indicators around children, most indicators around social health, and it's disturbing data that we have to confront, and come up with the right policy solutions to help address them.
Ted Simons: 5th highest poverty rate in the U.S. Arizona kids in poverty, higher than the national average. 5th worst conditions for kids and families. These are some of the things you mentioned and presented by looking at facts and figures. Why are we there?
Well, I think if you look at this historically, and it is very important that we look at data over long periods of time. You can't just look at what happens as a result of the 08' recession. Because I think there are trends that we can learn if we go back 20,30 years. But on some of the areas where you would invest in human capital, we have chosen as a state not to make investments that others have made. So, most people know about the level of investment in K-12. And if you look back 30 years, it has declined repeatedly over that period of time. If you look at investment in higher ed or in community colleges, it is very low. Now, that doesn't cause poverty. But what it does is it helps children out of poverty. And so we know from all of the economic research and it has been validated, if you invest in children early, and you invest in education, all of the way through the pipeline, you break the cycle of poverty in families. So, if you get one kid to college that is from a poor family, you break the cycle of poverty in that family. Education is a key factor in changing conditions for poverty and it has always been that case in the United States. It has been really the driver of our great economy.
Ted Simons: The per capita income in Arizona, 14% lower than the U.S. average. Again, has it always been that way? Is it changing for the worst, for the better?
Steve Seleznow: It has declined over the last several years, acutely declined over the last five or six years. And so when you look at per capita income, you have to think about the impact on tax revenue. So, if we want to grow the state, want to build our economy, the state wants to make certain investments to do that. If our work force is not properly educated, if our per capita income is going down as a result of kids who are not graduating high school or graduating high school not ready for post secondary or not ready for jobs, they're not going to produce tax revenue. And so, 30 years from now, or in the year , we're going to have a real crisis of producing enough revenue if we can't produce the work force that can be higher paid, higher skilled.
Ted Simons: How do we produce that work force? How do we get them the education when -- and there are some who argue this -- that there is a cultural problem here? We can't get moms and dads to make sure that junior and SIS are going to school.
Steve Seleznow: I think that is critically important. I think that education requires parents to be involved and parents to be engaged. But that is not a reason not to invest in children and schools. You want families to engage. You want families to set the right moral structure and right values and right patterns and habits. But if they don't, you don't give up on the kids. And it has been proven all over the country and in this state that you can still break that cycle of poverty. You can still take poor children, hold very high expectations of them and get them to college. We run the largest scholarship program in the state. We sent thousands of kids to college who come from poverty. They're what we want in our work force. They're going to drive our economy. We know that with the right supports, the right education, the right scholarships, the right early learning experience, the highest quality, that we can start to break that systematically.
Ted Simons: There is another matrix here regarding income inequality. Arizona, I think surprisingly to some, ranks very high in terms of inequality there. How important a measurement is that?
Steve Seleznow: It is important in a number of ways. This is not a political issue. Often we talk about income inequality associated with one political party or another. It is not that. It is not the rich versus the poor. Because in Arizona, and I know this running the community foundation, the wealthy of Arizona are enormously generous givers. Even through the recession, when many of those families lost a great deal of wealth, they continued to give to charitable causes at the same rates they gave before the recession. Income inequality is not rich versus poor, it is not republican versus democrat. It is just the data about income inequality that has been proven globally and also applies in this country. So, the United States has the largest income inequality gap of any country on earth. And when you look at the United States, Arizona is second highest income inequality gap in the United States. When you look at the research that has been done on income inequality, what you find is there is a very strong association between income inequality and social health indicators. The higher the income inequality, the greater rates of infant mortality, of obesity, of incarceration, unemployment, homicides. I could go through the whole list. Income inequality actually produces poor social health outcomes. And so, that doesn't mean that the rich shouldn't be rich or that those who are not rich shouldn't seek to earn higher wages. It means that we have got to look at the impact that the data show us about what income inequality associates with with respect to the quality of life we want in Arizona.
Ted Simons: So, when you look at that data, all of the data we have talked about this evening, what is the bottom line, what do you think that leaders in Arizona need to take from these facts?
Steve Seleznow: Well, I think the most important thing is that we confront the brutal facts. You can't lead based on mythological ideas or perceptions about the quality of life or the social condition. You have to really confront the facts. And I think the dialogue that we have in this state and the debate that we have about what is the right policy set should be driven first by what are the facts? What is the data? And the Arizona community foundation, in concert with the Morrison institute at ASU, created Arizona indicators. It is a public utility with data of area of concern in the state, from education, to corrections, to environmental quality, water quality, economic development, manufacturing. You name the data. We have to start with data, confront it, agree on what the data are telling us and then debate and fight over what is the right policy.
Ted Simons: I was going to say real quickly, how do you do that? How can you keep the fight on the up and up here, without the idea --
Steve Seleznow: You saw the ideological problem. If we can get the facts and the data that can be trusted and look at them from multiple sources. Not just one source. Not just certain politically biased think tanks, but we look at the best, most validated data that we collect here in this state. Then I think we can move past the -- let's agree on this data and fight about the way to solve this problem and that is the right place for values and -- to play out. The political debate, once you are working off a common set of facts we can all agree to.
Ted Simons: Fascinating, sobering information. Good to have you here. Thank you for joining us.
Steve Seleznow: Thank you, my pleasure.