Wed, Feb. 26

Percentage of Arizonans living in poverty increases by double over national average

PHOENIX -- The percentage of Arizonans living in poverty increased twice as fast as the national average last year.

New figures from the U.S. Census Bureau show that an estimated 938,924 residents were in households below the poverty level. That computes out to 14.7 percent of the state.

By comparison, the figure for Arizona in 2007 was 14.2 percent.

That half point increase compares with a jump of two tenths of a percent nationally, to 13.2 percent last year.

But the numbers -- and the trends -- are not uniform throughout the state.

Tucson and Yuma reported at least one out of five residents living in poverty last year, both after posting increases.

For example, the percentage of Chandler residents living in poverty went from 5.3 percent in 2007 to 8.6 percent last year.

But both nearby Gilbert and Tempe posted year-over-year decreases, as did Surprise.

There also was a big increase in the number of Arizonans who received food stamps during 2008 over the prior year. That figure went from 155,043 in 2007 to 187,331 last year.

Put another way, 6.9 percent of Arizonans were getting that kind of assistance in 2007. By 2008, that had jumped to 8.2 percent.

But that figure is still below the national average of 8.6 percent.

One potential reason for participation in this program being below the national average, as compared with the poverty rate, is that food stamps are restricted to those who are in this country legally. The poverty rate, however, measures everyone in Arizona regardless of legal status.

Here, too, there were major differences among various Arizona communities -- and even changes in patterns from the poverty figures.

For example, while Gilbert had fewer people living in poverty between 2007 and 2008, the percentage of its residents receiving food stamps at some point during the year more than doubled.

Louisiana, Maine and Kentucky had the highest percentages of residents getting food stamps, all at more than 13.7 percent. At the other extreme, just 4.2 percent of Wyoming residents were enrolled in the program.

Poverty figures also are a bit more complex, with standards that change every year.

The index originated in the early 1960s with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which looked at food budgets. In more recent years, the Census Bureau determines how much is needed by families of different sizes.

In 2007, for example, the cutoff for a family of three was $17,170. By last year it had risen to $17,600; it now stands at $18,310.

Mississippi tops the list with 21.2 percent of its population considered living in poverty.

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