Ted Simons: A significant number of working families in Arizona are unable to pay basic living expenses. That's from a recent report by the Working Poor Families Project. I spoke with Cynthia Zwick, the executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association. Thanks for joining us tonight on "Arizona Horizon."
Cynthia Zwick: Thank you.
Ted Simons: What is Working Poor Families Project?
Cynthia Zwick: It's a research group, a nonprofit research group out of Washington, D.C., that looks into the state of working families across the country.
Ted Simons: And the report, low working income families, the growing economic gap, what did the report look at?
Cynthia Zwick: It looked at the state of affairs for low-income working families. Here in Arizona was mentioned, as well. While the economy is kind of turning around or beginning to turn around, the plight of lower income working families is not turning around. In fact, they are starting to struggle more than we have seen them struggle in a while.
Ted Simons: I'm going to get to the reasons in a second. What defines a low-income working family?
Cynthia Zwick: Working poor is considered someone living at 200% of the federal poverty level. For a family of four it is about $46,000 a year, for an individual about $22,000 a year.
Ted Simons: And how many such families do we see here in Arizona?
Cynthia Zwick: Interestingly, about four out of 10 families in Arizona fall into that category.
Ted Simons: Has that number gone up, down, sideways?
Cynthia Zwick: Unfortunately it's going up and continues to increase. What we've seen is since recession there were about six million people across the country that lost their jobs. Of that number, about half of them are re-employed today. Of the 50% re-employed, half of them are employed in jobs where they were making equal or more than they were making when they lost their jobs initially. We have a huge number of people struggling to find employment. The jobs they are finding are not paying them well, and they cannot sustain their families and pay their bills on the amount they are earning.
Ted Simons: What is being done to lessen the gap?
Cynthia Zwick: We're looking at solutions in the public policy arena, advocacy solutions. We're look to get the federal government and Congress to not reduce funding any further than they have already done, and we're asking them to restore funding to some of the safety net programs. Locally we're looking to the legislature to increase funding where possible and support these families while they are making a transition from the working poor status into a more sustainable position.
Ted Simons: So one in five Arizonans below the poverty level?
Cynthia Zwick: That's right. We're at 19% poverty rate here in Arizona. It's the fifth highest in the country. So we're really struggling at this point to help families get back on their feet and become self-sufficient.
Ted Simons: Are there areas of the state hit harder than others?
Cynthia Zwick: There are. Some of the very rural communities like Apache County, Navajo County, are very hard hit with poverty. And then pockets of areas like Douglas, Arizona, Guadalupe, that seem to struggle more than others.
Ted Simons: Because of mostly immigration, these sorts of things?
Cynthia Zwick: Some of it is probably immigration. There just aren't as many opportunities for employment. It tends to be lower wage, service industry employees. Many of the higher-paid positions tend to be in more of the urban settings. It's a little more difficult to find a job where you can sustain your family.
Ted Simons: And again, what is being done in terms of lifting these areas out of poverty?
Cynthia Zwick: Well, that's a good question. I don't know that there's a lot being done today in some of those really rural areas. You see some construction work and some other kinds of service industries arising, but not a lot happening in the very rural areas right now. There's more happening in the local community. Even here, families are continuing to struggle because the wages are not high enough to sustain families. They don't have benefits available to them as many people do. If a child gets sick, they don't have vacation time to take care of that child. They may lose their position if they take the time off. They are in a very difficult situation.
Ted Simons: There is a line of reasoning that says the best way out of the situation is to simply get more jobs going. And to get more jobs going, you've got to free up in terms of regulation and taxes. Which would mean less in the way of benefits. How do you respond to that?
Cynthia Zwick: I think it's a complicated issue. Clearly we need more jobs in the community. But we need jobs that are higher paying jobs, which takes investments in education, throughout the communities. So the jobs that we have here today tend to be lower wage jobs. There are a large number of people that are living and working in those positions. So not only do we need more jobs, we need jobs that pay higher wages, so families can ultimately sustain themselves.
Ted Simons: And to get those jobs? You have to attract those businesses.
Cynthia Zwick: Absolutely. I think it all gets back to education and what the community support is for families who do fall into trouble. We've heard stories about employers who, when coming to Arizona, asked about the social service, the basic needs and the safety net, what the support is for families in case they get into trouble or they have disabled children. You know, struggles that families tend to face. They want to know what the support is like here. And it's weak at the moment, so I think we need to strengthen all levels of the safety net before we can continue to attract employers.
Ted Simons: You're with the Arizona community action association. Talk to us about that group.
Cynthia Zwick: We're a statewide organization that supports health and human services organizations. We are engaged in advocacy, education, public policy, in order to help families like these working poor get the tools they need to become self-sufficient.
Ted Simons: I know the public-rivate partnership is considered one of the solutions for your group.
Cynthia Zwick: Well, you know, nonprofits around the state including Arizona community action association partner with private enterprise all the time, on employment initiatives, education and skills initiatives, working to help sustain families as they work through the system. So we also work with government agencies and provide that hands-on support families need to get back on their feet.
Ted Simons: And solutions to poverty through research, as well.
Cynthia Zwick: Yeah, absolutely. Part of our role is to encourage people to understand what's going on. Nobody wakes up one day and says, I think I'm going to be poor today. We want people to really understand how people end up in this state, what it takes to help them out, and then help us take the steps to ensure that the policies and tools are there and available for families.
Ted Simons: And again, the idea isn't so much that you've concentrated on one aspect. The idea of getting more jobs here has to be looked at in a way that is not only business friendly, but working poor friendly, as well.
Cynthia Zwick: Absolutely.
Ted Simons: Okay. Final question: What do you want people to take from the report?
Cynthia Zwick: We want them to take a couple things. We want them to know the situation so people can be aware and understand what the situation is for so many people living in Arizona. We want people to understand there is a need for ongoing support through some of the federal and State programs. And that there are -- you know, what we would like to see in Arizona are jobs that pay a liveable wage, jobs that support a family and allow them to sustain their basic needs on an ongoing basis.
Ted Simons: Getting much response from the report?
Cynthia Zwick: We're getting some great response, and it is starting to raise awareness about the plight of some of the working poor.
Ted Simons: Where can we find this report or the information from the report?
Cynthia Zwick: You can certainly find the information on our website, www.azcaa.org, Arizona Community Action Association.
Ted Simons: Very good, good to have you here. Thanks for joining us.
Cynthia Zwick: Thank you, Ted.