As Arizona Goes, So Goes the Nation ... And Arizona is Struggling


Transplanted Southwesterners are a relatively rare commodity on the East Coast. A born-and-raised Arizonan, I happen to be one. On my most recent flight back to Manhattan from Phoenix, I started chatting with the two women next to me, a mother and daughter from Mesa visiting New York to see the ball drop in Times Square. Over orange slices, the mother, who hailed from Gallup, New Mexico, asked me, “Do people here ever judge you for being from the Southwest?" I asked her what she meant, and she said, "Well, you know, people think that people from New Mexico are cowboys, like the wild, wild West. And my relatives here think that there's no culture in Mesa, because all the art museums are here, in New York."

I told her that biggest misconception I'd run into on this coast was that people don't believe that it snows in Arizona — sometimes more than it snows anywhere else.

But that wasn't quite true. In elementary school, I learned that the five C's of the Arizonan economy until the '70s were copper, cattle, citrus, cotton, and climate. But in recent years, the five C's of Arizona seem to be controversy, challenge, clamor, contention, and (possibly) catastrophe.

Since I left Flagstaff for Cambridge, Mass. in 2008, Arizona's been the topic of some pretty bad press. My state has been called "hot, racist, and crazy." It probably lives up to at least two of those adjectives, and I've already made my point about Flagstaff's snowfall. Leading up to the enactment of Jan Brewer's controversial immigration law, SB 1070, Americans nationwide expressed their displeasure with the nation's 48th state by boycotting everything from bad Chinese food to a major tourist attraction to a popular brand of iced tea not actually affiliated with Arizona.

And let's not forget the school mural white-washing that wasn't, banning ethnic studies in public schools (and universities), Sheriff Joe Arpaio's suspected abuses of power, Gabby Gifford's tragic shooting two years ago today, ludicrous anti-abortion measures defining pregnancy as occurring before your period, a tactless judge's judgment on sexual assault, an allegedly anti-gay principal, ASU (aka the "Harvard of date rape") and the three belligerent members of its Men's Rights group, uncounted votes in the 2012 state and local elections, intra-Arizona attempts at secession, Jan Brewer's poor manners, Jan Brewer's total meltdown on TV, Jan Brewer's accidental Obama endorsement, Jan Brewer ... well, just Jan Brewer.

In December, Arizona joined other states in trying to secede from the United States, garnering 24,111 signatures on its online petition to the White House. (Just for reference, ten times more Americans want the Westboro Baptist Church to be labeled a hate group than supported the Independent Republic of Arizona.) Even Jan Brewer thought that was a bad idea, saying “I don’t know a whole lot about it, but you know, I believe, the states make up the best country in the whole wide world, and that’s the United States of America.”

I can't totally blame those who want to just give up on my state, especially now that the debate over immigration reform will once again reach national prominence. Our own law enforcement officials think that our attempts to deal with immigration exacerbate the problem rather than solving it.

But focusing only on Arizona's struggles with immigration obscures many of the other important issues afflicting the state — and that prevents us from knowing how to solve Arizona's problems, and, in turn, the problems facing the nation.

Add another 'C' to the list of Arizona's current challenges: children.

A new report from First Focus, a bipartisan organization which advocates on the behalf of children and families in federal policy and budget matters, emphasizes this reality. The report details the living conditions of children in seven Southwestern states (California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Nevada, Utah, and Colorado.) According to former Census Bureau Director Steve Murdock, one of the contributors to the report, children in the the Southwest were more than one-fourth of America's child population in 2010, more than half of America's Hispanic child population, nearly one-third of America's Asian child population, and accounted for over 90% of the increase in America's child population between 2000 and 2010.

If children are the future, the future is in the Southwest, and the future is not doing well.

The child poverty rate is highest in New Mexico, where 30% of children fall below the poverty line, compared to 17.2% for adults in the state, and 21% of children nationwide. In 1997, it was 19.2%. Only three other countries in the developed world — Mexico, Chile, and Turkey — have higher rates of child poverty. Further, the number of children in low-income families has risen in recent years, from 40% in 2005 to 44% in 2010.

Arizona ranks third-highest for child poverty in the U.S. with a rate of 24.4%. It ranks as the fifth worst state nationwide in terms of number of uninsured children. (Texas, Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida take the top four spots.) As of 2011, Arizona's children ranked 46th in the nation on education, economic well-being, health, and family and community, according to the Annie E. Casey Foundation. 68% of Arizonan children don't attend pre-school, a number which has stayed constant since 2007, because Arizona depends on Head Start, a federally-funded program, and there simply isn't enough money to cover everyone. Arizona's cuts to education over the past four years are the largest in the nation; Arizona reduced per-student spending for K-12 students by 21.8%, one of only three states to cut funding by over 20%. In 2012, Arizona gained back a little ground on the education front — it now ranks 44th.

Unfortunately, the problems afflicting Arizona's children are not isolated to their childhood.  As Murdock, Professor Michael Cline of Rice University, and Professor Mary Zey of UT San Antonio explain, "Although their progression to adulthood is inevitable, their growth in the human capital which they will need to become competitive is not. Their socioeconomic, educational, and health characteristics will play major roles in determining their likelihood of social and financial success and their physical and mental health conditions as adults." In other words, failing children now means limiting their potential forever.

It is important to note, too, that the Southwest, including Arizona, accounts for much of the future growth of racial minorities which we heard so much about in the last election. Children in the Southwest constituted 57.6% of all the nation's Hispanic children, 32.9% of the nation's American Indian/Alaskan Native children, and 41.6% of the nation's Asian children. Thus, the authors note that children in the Southwest are disproportionately from minority racial and ethnic groups, in addition to being disproportionately disadvantaged in terms of poverty and health insurance. Race, then, plays a significant role in determining the outcomes of the Southwest.

For those who object that Arizona should set about fixing its own problems before troubling the rest of the nation, Thomas L. Gais points out that federalist critiques often fail to take into account that state-funded public programs in the Southwest are often less extensive and less well-funded, which contributes to regional problems like those discussed above. While children in Arizona would very likely fare better if they could access better social services, these services are lacking in the states.

He notes, "For instance, with the exception of California and Utah, Southwest states have relatively low per capita personal incomes, a common measure of fiscal capacity. Yet it is also true that these states devote less of what fiscal capacity they have to state budgets. Southwest states commit a consistently smaller share of their Gross State Products to state taxes." These differences, Gais explains, may be due to "fiscal capacity ... political culture, tax, and expenditure limits" which are more common in Southwestern states.

While strengthening all federal programs would not directly target states like Arizona, who need them most, many federal programs for children "are not fully funded by the national government but instead require state matching contributions or state maintenance of effort expenditures." Since many Southwestern states do not or cannot match federal funds, their programs suffer. And so do their children.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Arizona.

Set against the backdrop of immigration reform, and the intense national criticism of SB 1070, which some economists believe is costing the state millions of dollars in direct revenue, Arizona's outlook is even bleaker. And all this without even touching on the issues facing undocumented immigrants and their families, a topic which deserves its own article.

In concluding their report, Murdock, Cline, and Zey ask, "Will the United States' adult population (through elections, taxes, and other factors) support the youth who are racially and culturally different from themselves and their children or will they perpetuate a dual class education and economic structure which has dominated many areas in the United States, including many areas in the Southwest?"

I no longer live in Arizona, and I will probably never live there again. But I recognize its importance, and the importance of the Southwest, to the nation. My state may well deserve its reputation as hot, crazy, and racist. But its children deserve more. They deserve one, all-important C: care.