Tucson – Struggles

May 30, 2015

Tucson as a city and a metro area struggles mightily. According to a study based on the U.S. Census Bureau’s Five-Year American Community Survey, Tucson was the nation’s fifth poorest community through 2013. Hard to believe, what with resorts, beautiful homes in the foothills, a world-class research university, etc., but slightly more than third of our population makes less than $25,000 per year. Only one of every 25 working residents makes more than $150,000. Median income in 2013 was $36,758, ranking Tucson 169th.

The poverty correlates with other measures. Property crime is a huge problem. Our food hardship rate ranking was 30th in 2012. According to a 2012 Brookings study about college-educated residents in metro areas, Tucson ranked 41st in 2010, with 30% of its residents having a college degree. Regarding education more generally, Literacy Connects offers these snapshots for Arizona, none of which are pretty. (Tucson stats are no better than the state as a whole.) And, according to The State of Homelessness in America rankings, as of 2011, Tucson had the 19th highest rate of homelessness among metro areas.

Everyone has a theory about why Tucson suffers, and almost everyone has answers. Many blame a lack of leadership, and quickly point to decades of control by Democrats. That argument sells not very well for me, given the fact that we’ve had a Republican mayor for 34 of the 54 years during which I’ve lived in Tucson. (Yes, I know all about the weak-mayor system, but mayors lead. Without criticizing any of his six predecessors—all capable, decent men—Mayor Jonathan Rothschild* is schooling all of us about leadership.)

Lots of people also blame a failure to compete for employers. Yes, we did not get the Tesla battery plant, but getting that plant required billions in commitments, money Tucson simply doesn’t have. It’s a real problem, although giving away money to get jobs, sports teams, etc. does not represent a viable strategy for achieving sustained growth and development. (For an excellent review of corporate giveaways and why they only benefit the recipients, read Free Lunch: How the Wealthiest Americans Enrich Themselves at Government Expense (and Stick you with the Bill) by David Cay Johnston.)

My theory? Tucson suffers from a structural problem. According to the 2014 List of Metropolitan Statistical Areas, Tucson is the 53rd largest metro area in the country. It’s not, however, a state capital or the largest city in Arizona. And this matters because? Being the state capital or the largest city in the state provides inherent advantages. State government provides many high-paying jobs. And largest cities in states host bank and utility headquarters, large law firms, accounting firms, and other core businesses and organizations. More high-paying jobs, and in both cases the money from those high-paying jobs supports restaurants, bars, clothing stores, homebuilders, etc. More jobs!

So Tucson is neither. Leave out California, Florida, Ohio, and Texas, as they all have several large metro areas. The only metro areas more populous than Tucson which are not capitals or largest cities in their states are Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Memphis, Buffalo, Rochester, Raleigh-Durham, and Grand Rapids. Pittsburgh, Kansas City, and Memphis all have geography—each is a major river port—and industry to explain their success (and Pittsburgh, in particular, has rehabilitated itself in the past 20-30 years.) Buffalo and Rochester struggle as cities which have seen their best days. Raleigh-Durham has become a major tech-hub over the past 50 years, while Grand Rapids has a substantial share of the world’s office furniture market.

Tucson is a big city without advantages. Not a capital or biggest city. No geography—Mexico provides geography-based opportunities, but they haven’t matured yet—or industrial history. (Eight of our 10 largest employers are governmental entities. The other two are Raytheon—which generates almost 100% of its revenue from the federal government—and Walmart.)

Yes, we have clear skies, warm temperatures, and great mountain ranges. That provides a set of elements which support a vibrant tourism industry, but tourism cannot support and sustain a community with 1,000,000+ residents.

At this point in this post I can see and hear my mom and daughter shaking their heads and saying “Why do you have to be so negative?” Stay tuned, you two, and anyone else who’s still reading, for tomorrow’s post provides some positivity. Don’t expect easy answers or quick fixes, for our hole is deep and old, but I have some thoughts about actions and a mindset which will point us in the right direction.

*The Mayor and I were law partners for a short time. I work with his father—still one of my partners—and his son.

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