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Restoring opportunity: What we can do

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Opportunity in Tucson

Restoring opportunity: What we can do

Part five in a five-part series

  • Paul Ingram/

If Tucson is to grow and prosper, it needs to dramatically improve economic opportunities for the young people who grow up here. While Tucson kids of all income levels do worse in adulthood in comparison to kids who grow up in the 11 cities with which Tucson often is compared, the most urgent need is to help kids who grow up in low-income families.

The economic damage from the COVID-19 pandemic will make the job much more difficult, but there are many steps that the city of Tucson, Pima County government, local businesses and individuals can take. However, before looking at seven recommendations, consider two cautions.

Tucson likely cannot grow its way out of its poverty.

A common argument is that increasing economic growth is the best way to provide more opportunity. That may be true for recent college graduates, but it is not true for the poor. And now in the era of coronavirus, it may no longer be true for recent college graduates, either.

Consider Charlotte, N.C. A few years ago, leaders there were proud of their city's high economic growth and job creation. So it was a surprise when researchers found that the growth was providing opportunities for the already well-off and for high-paid transplants from other cities, but it was doing nothing for the poor. To their credit, Charlotte's leaders quickly took action to better understand the problem and to seek solutions.

En español: Restaurar oportunidades: lo que podemos hacer

Growth advocates also frequently argue that it is better to enlarge the economic pie than to redistribute the pie that already exists.

However, evidence doesn't support that belief. As noted in Part 4 of this series, researchers analyzing the sharp decline in upward mobility since the 1940s estimated that higher growth rates would have closed only 29 percent of the decline, while keeping the economic pie the same size but sharing it more equally would have closed 71 percent of the gap.

Neither Charlotte's experience nor the research into upward mobility supports growth as an answer to poverty. Each city has to find its own way to improve opportunities for its kids. While national and statewide policies and trends obviously influence what cities can do, local actions make an important difference. It is up to Tucson to find our own answer.

Education is an answer, but not the answer.

Another frequent argument is that the best way to reduce poverty is for the poor to get better educations. While we whole-heartedly are advocates for improving education, this argument ignores the fact that a quality education is not available to all kids.

It is disingenuous to argue that a kid who grows up in a low-income neighborhood and attends a high school that earns a "C" from the Arizona Department of Education has the same opportunity to earn a good education as a kid who grows up in a high-income neighborhood and attends a high school that earns an "A" from the state.

Moreover, the issue is more complex than just the quality of the teachers and administrators. The neighborhoods surrounding the schools are important. Nearly all high-achieving schools are located in higher-income communities of economically secure families who not only are deeply engaged with their schools, but who also use their political power to demand good schools and willingly pay higher taxes to fund them.

Finding ways to provide better educational opportunities to the poor is extremely difficult, as decades of failed reform efforts have proven.

But until we do, the argument that "poor kids need to get better educations" is little more than blaming the poor for being poor.

With these two cautions, here are seven recommendations for how Tucson can increase opportunities for the young people who grow up here.

Recommendation One: Support high-quality preschool for every child

Preschools are effective. High-quality early childhood experiences help ensure that success is more likely in school and in life. It means in adulthood the kids are more likely to be healthier, and they are more likely to be employed and successful – and to become taxpayers.

Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman calculated that for every one dollar invested in high-quality early childhood education, a community will realize savings of more than 12 dollars in avoided costs of juvenile justice, incarceration, welfare and other social program spending.

Here in Tucson, The Preschool Promise is a diverse coalition of educators, business leaders, community organizations, parents and concerned citizens who are working to generate funding so that more of our children can attend a high-quality preschool. You can learn more about it at

Recommendation Two: To help kids, improve funding for their schools

In funding our public schools, Arizona is often ranked at fourth from the bottom among the 50 states. But this alarming statistic tells only part of the story.

When states are ranked by their wealth and ability to fund public education, Arizona does even worse. In the percent of personal income that Arizona spends on public education, including money from federal, state and local sources, Arizona is second from the bottom among the states, according to fiscal year 2017 figures from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Arizona spends $26.84 per $1,000 of personal income on public education, while the national median is $37.46 per $1,000 of personal income. Were Arizona to increase funding to meet the national median in spending on education in relation to its citizens' wealth, the state would increase its public-school funding by nearly 40 percent.

Arizonans' low ratio of spending on education in relation to their wealth implies that the state could afford to spend much more for public education. It is shameful that we don't.

Recommendation Three: To help kids, improve their neighborhood

Neighborhoods make a large difference in a child's lifelong prospects. One obvious way to improve a child's neighborhood is to help the parents move to a neighborhood that has more opportunity yet is still affordable. For instance, the City of Seattle is working with researchers to use housing vouchers to guide parents into more desirable neighborhoods.

Also, local governments can reexamine land-use and zoning regulations in order to make it easier to create mixed-income neighborhoods with their higher levels of opportunity. Or incentives can be used to attract employers, retailers or higher-educated residents. There are many ways to improve neighborhoods. But one thing is certain: Neighborhoods won't improve unless we make their improvement a priority.

Recommendation Four: Recognize the importance of family structure

The Harvard researchers at, the research that much of this series of articles is based on, identified two-parent families as a key factor to children's later success. However, in the last two decades, despite spending hundreds of millions of dollars, federal programs designed to strengthen marriage and marriage stability did not work because couples increasingly have chosen not to marry.

Moreover, the effort to have more children live in two-parent households runs into a powerful social trend: An estimated 60 percent of births nationally to single women under 30 years of age are unplanned.

Single-parent households are an especially significant issue in Tucson, which at the 84th percentile, is among the highest cities in the nation for single-parent households.

Although better family planning is a possible solution to single-family households, other steps also can be taken. Increasing home visits from parent educators, social workers or nurses can help young parents better understand how to more effectively raise their children. And employers can adopt family-friendly workplace practices, such as providing flexible schedules, more predictable work schedules, job sharing, sick leave when children are ill and working at home.

Recommendation Five: To help kids, help their parents

Part 2 of this series found that Tucson children who grow up in low-income households earn several thousand dollars less annually in adulthood than those who grow up in middle-income households. And children who grow up in middle-income households earn several thousand dollars less annually in adulthood than those who grow up in high-income households. This suggests the reasonable conclusion that increasing the parents' incomes would offer more opportunities to their children.

Several ways exist to increase parental income. One way could be through following the lead of 28 other states by instituting an Arizona Earned Income Tax Credit to supplement the federal Earned Income Tax Credit. That tax credit is considered one of the nation's best anti-poverty programs. It has reduced poverty for millions of families and improved children's immediate and long-term well-being.

Other ways include increasing the minimum wage, providing more opportunities for training and education for adults, shifting the tax structure to rely less on regressive taxes, protecting anti-poverty programs such as food stamps and childcare support, and in general providing a better safety net.

Recommendation Six: To help kids, better organize to tackle Tucson's inequality of opportunity

Efforts to reduce poverty and economic inequality and to increase opportunity need to take place at every level – federal, state and local. However, progress can be much faster at the state and local levels. Consequently, cities and states are the source of some of the most meaningful and worthwhile work as businesspeople, educators, nonprofit leaders, local government officials and others come together in common purpose to collaborate on improving opportunity.

One option is to convene a task force, similar to a task force formed in Charlotte, to conduct an in-depth study and to make recommendations for how to increase opportunity in Tucson. Then, the task force should engage the community in carrying out the recommendations.

However, one concern with organizing a task force is that so many task force reports generate a lot of publicity but then die quiet deaths. If we create a task force, we cannot allow its recommendations to be filed away on shelves in leaders' offices where they never again see the light of day.

Recommendation Seven: To help kids, develop a demonstration project based on the idea of a universal basic income

This may sound obvious but raising individual and family incomes is a sure way to make a dent in Tucson's poverty and to begin providing more opportunity to low-income Tucsonans. This leads to a final recommendation for a demonstration project based on the idea of a universal basic income.

A universal basic income gained public attention during the Democratic presidential primary as the main platform of then-candidate Andrew Yang. In 2020, to fight the COVID economic downturn, the Trump administration used this idea by sending one-time checks to nearly every American adult.

Supporters contend that a universal basic income would have several benefits. It would reduce poverty, offset the millions of jobs expected to be lost as technology replaces even more workers, eliminate the large bureaucracies that are required to manage social safety net programs, and give people a cushion that allows them to seek better jobs, more education, or to become entrepreneurs.

We suggest developing a demonstration project in which 100 to 200 Tucsonans would receive $500 to $1,000 per month, no conditions attached, with the purpose of determining whether it allows recipients to move out of poverty. These people would be matched statistically with a control group that does not receive the additional income.

This column is not the place to design such a project. But there are models available as well as expert advice. Stockton, Calif., is in the final months of a basic income demonstration project. Other programs that give money to people include Alaska's Permanent Fund Dividend, the Casino Dividend for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, and universal basic income programs in Finland, Namibia and Kenya.

Importantly, in 2017 Stanford University created a Basic Income Lab to create an academic home for the study and evaluation of basic income experiments.

It is too early to say conclusively that such programs work, but the research so far is encouraging. This means Tucson has the opportunity to play an important role in helping the nation understand how better to improve the conditions and circumstances of the poor.

A final word

The growing opportunity gap among Tucson's kids is destructive, not only to those with fewer opportunities, but also to our community. Kids who have fewer opportunities for education or who feel increasingly estranged from the political process cannot fully contribute to our economy or to our democracy. Nor can they recognize their potential for living a meaningful, satisfying life.

The coronavirus is making it even more difficult for many Tucsonans to provide even the basics – food, housing, and health care for their children. These, of course, are the highest priority.

However, that does not absolve us from at the same time taking actions to narrow the opportunity gap. If we want the city to become a great city and the county to become a great county, it is urgent that we find ways to allow all Tucsonans an equal chance to realize the American dream for themselves and their children. Tucson's future demands it. We should demand it of ourselves.

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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