Nearly 50 million people in the U.S. are living in poverty, according to the Census Bureau, which also ranks Tucson eighth highest among the poverty rates for large metropolitan areas.
At the University of Arizona, students are working to collect data and insights that will be used to address the issue of poverty in Tucson.
In June 2012, the UA's College of Social and Behavioral Sciences partnered with Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild's Poverty Commission to better understand ways to address issues associated with poverty in southern Arizona. The UA's Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop was created to collect data and formulate a report outlining the findings for the mayor's poverty commission.
"I was always very impressed by the idea of giving students an opportunity to work in the field and gather data that would be useful to a local organization or, in this case, the city," said Brian Mayer, associate professor in the School of Sociology and the Mel and Enid Zuckerman College of Public Health, who currently teaches the course.
The course combines classroom lectures and field training with data collection and analysis. It culminates with a forum in which community members are invited to view the student-led presentations on the workshop's research findings. The spring semester forum is scheduled for May 15 at 9 a.m. at Habitat for Humanity Tucson, 3501 N. Mountain Ave.
The report developed by students who took the course last year found that poverty in Tucson is highest among women, children and female-headed households where no husband is present; individuals living in nonfamily households; American Indians; Hispanics; those with less than a high school degree; the foreign-born; and those who aren't employed or work less than full time year-round.
The report also addresses a variety of topics related to Tucson's population living in poverty, such as quality-of-life issues and causes of poverty, and outlines several recommendations developed by students.
"What the poverty commission really valued in the report is the narrative, the qualitative information that explains the challenges in a lot of depth," Mayer said. "We're hoping to have a level of detail that empowers them to take better action and possibly get additional funding."
Students will continue collecting data as part of the workshop for at least three more years, thanks to commitments from three local nonprofits. Habitat for Humanity Tucson, the Community Foundation of Southern Arizona and the Community Food Bank of Southern Arizona each has pledged $15,000 so that the workshop can continue collecting data and presenting its findings.
Currently, 49 students are on 24 teams responsible for collecting 12 surveys as part of their field work. Mayer said the data-collection process allows students to learn the interpersonal "soft skills" that can only be learned in the field.
"You can sit in a classroom and learn all these things, but when you go and talk to a person face-to-face, it's a completely different experience," Mayer said. "It's about getting people to tell you their story by knocking on doors and developing those communication and survey skills."
Mayer also utilizes the help of student preceptors — students who have taken the course last year — to share their experiences and tips with currently enrolled students.
"Taking part in the Poverty in Tucson Field Workshop was a completely different experience from any other class I had taken at the UA," said Eric Cardenas, a junior majoring in philosophy, politics, economics and law who participated in the workshop last year.
"The people who accepted to be interviewed were always so delighted to share their stories and their lives with us, because I feel like not many people ask them these types of questions on a day-to-day basis," Cardenas said. "Overall, (it was) a great experience that I will never forget, and meeting the mayor was a big plus, as well."
Alexis Montoya, a senior majoring in physiology with a minor in sociology, also took the course last year and said it helped push her outside her comfort zone.
"Listening to the experiences and hardships of others was humbling beyond explanation," Montoya said. "The interviews conducted in the workshop taught me the appropriate way to gain trust and listen to the life stories of the interviewees."
Montoya added that since participating in the workshop, her motivations for volunteering have transitioned into new areas.
"This course has made such an impact on my life that I have taken what I have learned and applied it by shifting my volunteer interests toward social work," Montoya said. "I have since volunteered to provide the homeless with necessities, and provide after-school care for children from families with low incomes."
Mayer said that he hopes the workshop will continue to collect valuable data for years to come. He plans to expand the course's scope beyond income and expenses to data related to topics such as health, nutrition and climate vulnerability.
"I'm certain at the community forum we can have some kind of activity where people can vote on what topics they think we should do next year," Mayer said. "I'm hopeful we will be able to continue the workshops as long as possible."