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Tucson tops list of distressed Arizona cities

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Rogue Columnist

Tucson tops list of distressed Arizona cities

It's tough all over. Well, not really.

In the latest Distressed Communities report, which digs down to the ZIP code level nationally, Gilbert ranks as the least distressed among America's 100 largest cities. It has zero distressed ZIP codes and 99 percent of them are considered "prosperous." The report, by the Economic Innovation Group, considers seven metrics to rank areas "distressed," "at risk," mid-tier," "comfortable," and "prosperous." It's become one of the gold-standard reports as America struggles with sharply different economic and social outcomes.

Chandler also did very well, No. 4 nationally, with zero distressed and 65 percent prosperous ZIP codes. Scottsdale ranked No. 10, again with zero distressed and 61 percent prosperous. These showings are no mystery. All three jurisdictions are overwhelmingly higher-income Anglos, along with the preponderance of the state's high-end economic assets. (Someone once sniffed that he lived in south Chandler, as if this would impress me. My Chandler is circa 1977 and south Chandler is alfalfa fields.). Scottsdale has plenty of extremely rich retirees and part-year residents. Gilbert, and to a lesser extent Chandler, also benefits from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Yet Tucson ranks a shocking 91 out of 100. Nearly 59 percent of the city's ZIP codes are distressed and less than 8 percent are prosperous. This is the kind of calamity more likely seen in famously troubled places — and indeed the other bottom 10 include Detroit, Buffalo, and Newark. 

Tucson lacks rusting steel mills and deindustrialization. But it does share something with many other distressed cities: poor minorities separated far from most of their affluent fellow citizens. For example, 85714, which is south of Ajo Way (below South Tucson), turns in 40 percent of the population with no high-school diploma, vs. 13 percent nationally. More than 41 percent of the adults are not working (28 percent nationally), 36 poverty rate (16 percent nationally), and 50 percent of the national income median. The ZIP Code is more than 92 percent minority (Hispanic).

Although 85714 is the most severe example, Tucson has plenty of these ZIPs.

In addition to highly concentrated poverty and poorly funded schools, Tucson suffers from one of the worst metropolitan economies in the United States. Last year, jobs barely increased and bankruptcies rose. At $39,541 in 2016, Tucson's per-capita personal income trailed metro Phoenix by nearly $2,700. But that's not fair because Phoenix is so much larger. Salt Lake City, which is about the same size metro as Tucson, leaves both Tucson and Phoenix behind, at $46,023.

Interestingly, both Tucson and Salt Lake were nearly identical in PCPI until the mid-1990s. Then Salt Lake began to pull ahead, investing in a high-tech economy and a regional rail transit system. And, of course, this advantage was pressed to the maximum by the Mormons, who wanted the best for their church headquarters. Salt Lake City came in No. 10 in the influential Milken Institute Best-Performing Cities report. Tucson dragged in at 154. Phoenix was 40.

It wasn't supposed to work out like this. In the 1970s, Tucson was a college city, add in the Southern Pacific Railroad and Davis-Monthan Air Force Base, with an incredibly rich history and enchanting setting. Go back before statehood and it was the most important city in the territory — one reason Phoenix wound up with the capital was a compromise between the two rich population centers of Prescott and Tucson. But let's linger in the 1970s, population 263,000, reliably Democrat, smart and progressive (and hometown of Linda Ronstadt). Not only that, but the University of Arizona was making its run at becoming a major research university, as the University of Texas had done. Why didn't Tucson become a Portland or an Austin, if not a Salt Lake City?

First, the UA was savaged by decades of budget cuts and outsmarted at the Legislature by ASU. Second, as Arizona doubled-down on "growth" as its primary economic project, metro Phoenix got all the toys, such as there were to be had. An increasingly reactionary state government did little to encourage the environment that would have let Tucson, or even Phoenix, catch the headwaters of the technology economy. Tucson and Pima County inflicted their own wounds, from terrible sprawl to the repeated failure to build light rail. Tucson's most influential businessman was a car dealer (Jim Click). While Tucson has a few big employers, such as Raytheon, as UA has done some tech transfer to startups, they aren't enough. Now the metro area has attracted large numbers of Big Sort right-wingers to the fringes — and they vote.

Arizona shouldn't be smug, despite the East Valley showing. Mesa ranked 41st and Glendale 82nd. The city of Phoenix came in 76 out of 100 (Austin 9; Denver 19; Portland 17, and Seattle 7). The city had more than 36 percent of its ZIP codes in the distressed category, only 19 percent prosperous.

The state as a whole had more than 24 percent of its population living in distressed areas, above the national average. More than half of Americans in distressed ZIP codes live in the South, so rock on GOP policies. One thing Arizona shows is that those same policies allow for comfortable geographic separation. So don't expect Gilbert to rise up to help Tucson.

The piece was first published on Rogue Columnist.

Jon Talton is a fourth-generation Arizonan who runs the blog Rogue Columnist. He is a former op-ed and business columnist of the Arizona Republic, and retired as the economics columnist of the Seattle Times in 2019. Talton is also the author of 12 novels, including the David Mapstone Mysteries, which are set in Arizona.

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