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Opportunity in Tucson? Not so much

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Analysis: Our future

Opportunity in Tucson? Not so much

Part one in a five-part series

  • Virtual learning during the pandemic.
    Paul Ingram/TucsonSentinel.comVirtual learning during the pandemic.

Children who grow up in Tucson have less opportunity in adulthood – or are less prepared to take advantage of opportunity – than kids who grow up elsewhere.

Worse, that startling fact comes from an analysis conducted even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, further intensifying differences between haves and have-nots across the country.

Even before the coronavirus, Tucson provided less opportunity to our young people than the national median or the 11 cities to which UA researchers compared Tucson.

Even before the coronavirus, Tucson had an economy that rewards young people who grow up in the northern portions of the town more than those who grow up in the southern portions, rewards men more than women, and rewards whites and Asians more than Blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans.

Even before the coronavirus, Tucson's poverty levels were even higher than the average for Arizona and the nation. And poverty victimizes not only those suffering from it, but the entire community. It costs our local economy approximately $2.2 billion per year.

En español: ¿Oportunidad en Tucson? No tanto

While the COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly has made these problems even worse, considering them now, as Arizona being to think about how we might recover, will give Tucsonans a chance to emerge from this crisis at pre-coronavirus levels – or even better, to create a new local economy that is stronger and that shares its benefits more widely and more fairly.

This is the first in a series of columns on the lack of opportunity that faces young people who grow up in Tucson and on what the city can do to create more opportunity for our young people. It is based on an extensive database created by researchers who gathered tax and demographic information on about 20 million children and followed them into adulthood.

The research shows that when boys and girls who grow up in Tucson reach adulthood and form households of their own, they pay a substantial price in lifetime incomes because of their childhoods in Tucson. That's true regardless of their parents' income, and it's true whether or not the boys and girls stay here to work and live as grownups.

Kids who grow up in Tucson tend to have incomes in adulthood of several thousand dollars less annually than the average for boys and girls who grow up at the median in the United States.

And they tend to have annual household incomes $2,000 to $3,000 less in adulthood than kids who grow up in the 11 other cities used for comparison by researchers at the UA Economic and Business Research Center. Multiply this average annual shortfall by a 40-year work life, and you are looking at a lifetime shortfall of $80,000 to $120,000.

These income shortfalls reflect a disturbing national trend. Though virtually every American will say they believe everyone should have an equal opportunity to succeed, opportunity is declining in the United States and in Arizona.

Indeed, a key measure of opportunity – the ability to be socially mobile and have a more financially secure life than your parents – has been on a downward trend in America for decades.

Ninety percent of children born in the 1940s and 1950s earned higher incomes as adults than their parents, after adjusting for inflation, according to research by Harvard economist Raj Chetty and his colleagues. But for children born in the 1980s, only 50 percent are earning more than their parents. (Figures 1-3 and 1-4.)

Using upward mobility as a proxy for opportunity, the researchers gathered information about 20 million children born between 1978 and 1983 and followed them into adulthood. Significantly, more than 25,000 of these children grew up in Tucson.

Having gathered this information, the researchers posted it – along with many other pieces of demographic and financial information – on a website, This research provides the basis for this series of columns.

While estimates based on the outcomes of children born between 1978 and 1983 may not seem to be relevant, the researchers from Harvard's Opportunity Insight say they have found historical outcome data to be more useful than more recent data on poverty or test scores.

One possible reason for Tucson's poor performance is the city's exceptionally high proportion of single-parent households. Thirty-nine percent of households in Tucson in the years 2012 to 2016 were headed by a single parent. That percentage is so high that Tucson ranked nationally at the 84th percentile. .

The number of single-parent households is troubling because it means children in those households most likely will grow up in homes with fewer resources and with parents who don't have as much time or energy to spend with them. Significantly, researchers at Harvard's Opportunity Insight Institute found that the percentage of children living in single-parent households reduces upward income mobility more than any other variable they explored.

Single parenthood is troubling, too, because of its effect on women: More than four out of five single parents are mothers, with more than a third nationally living in poverty.

When race and ethnicity are taken into account, Tucson's income numbers also are disturbing.

Kids who grow up in Tucson earn significantly less than kids of the same race or ethnicity who grow up in the comparison cities:

  • White kids who grow up in Tucson earn $4,000 less in annual household income than white kids who grow up in the comparison cities.
  • Hispanic kids who grow up in Tucson earn $3,000 less annually than Hispanic kids who grow up in the comparison cities.
  • Black kids who grow up in Tucson earn $1,000 less annually than Black kids who grow up in the comparison cities.
  • Asian kids who grow up in Tucson earn $1,000 less annually than Asian kids who grow up in the comparison cities.
  • And Native American kids who grow up in Tucson earn an especially troubling $11,000 less annually than Native American kids who grow up in the comparison cities.

Tucson's low level of opportunity for its young people has been noted before. In 2015, the New York Times published an earlier database from the same researchers that used "extremely bad" and "very bad" to describe the income mobility of kids who grow up in Pima County. Boys did especially poorly. The county was about average for girls from poor families, but "very bad" for the prospects of girls from wealthy families.

Pima County also was "very bad" for kids who grow up in poor families, the Times reported. It was better than only about 5 percent of the nation's 2,478 counties.

Significantly, current research continues to show the same problems. In January, Brandeis University's Heller School for Social Policy and Management and released a study concluding that Tucson is ninth from the bottom among the country's 100 largest metropolitan areas in providing opportunities for economic mobility for kids who grow up here.

Of course, financial success is not all that we want for our children. Yet nothing causes more concern in parents than the fear that they will not be able to provide the food, shelter, education, health care and other needs that will enable their child to live a productive and happy life while at home and in adulthood. Economic success is the bedrock on which we build so many dreams and aspirations.

The income shortfall for kids who grow up in Tucson reveals that economic opportunity in Tucson is more myth than reality. That is unacceptable. And it will be even more unacceptable if, as we struggle to overcome the coronavirus and deal with the aftermath, we make short-term decisions that fail to address our city's long-term problems.

The complete 'Tucson Opportunity' series

Part 1: Opportunity in Tucson? Not so much

Part 2: A tale of two Tucsons

Part 3: Poverty is costly, and not only for Tucson's poor

Part 4: Economic inequality limits opportunity

Part 5: Restoring opportunity: What we can do

En español

Parte 1: ¿Oportunidad en Tucson? No tanto

Parte 2: Cuento de dos Tucson

Parte 3: La pobreza es costosa y no solo para los pobres

Parte 4: La desigualdad económica limita las oportunidades

Parte 5: Restaurando oportunidad: lo que podemos hacer

Jim Kiser is a former editorial page columnist and editorial page editor for the Arizona Daily Star. He has undergraduate and graduate degrees in education from the University of Arizona and an MBA from Stanford University.

About Jim Kiser

Jim Kiser is a former editorial page editor and columnist for the Arizona Daily Star. After retiring from the Star, he worked for the Southern Arizona Leadership Council. Previously, he spent three years as vice president of Finance for the Des Moines Register and Tribune Company, and he has an MBA from Stanford University. Though her name is not in the byline by her choice, his wife Shirley, a former nonprofit and public education executive and high school English teacher, is a full partner in the effort to call attention to Tucson’s lack of opportunity for the city’s young people. 

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