The 2011 Census figures to be released this fall will show that progress combating poverty has taken a giant leap backwards.
According to the Associated Press, the new numbers will show more Americans living in poverty than at any time since President Lyndon Johnson launched the war on poverty in 1964. Analysts estimate that 47 million Americans, or 1 in 6, were poor last year.
In Arizona, the numbers are already staggering. The state currently holds the dubious distinction of ranking fifth-highest in the nation with 18.6 percent of Arizonans — and a mind-numbing 24.4 percent of children, or 1 in 4 — living in poverty in 2010.
And, we’ve heard all too often of the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s 2012 Kids Count Report, which puts Arizona No. 46 for overall well-being for children in education, economic well-being, family and community, and health.
That’s what makes the impact of the current rate-increase proposal by Salt River Project on low-income individuals and families even more difficult to understand.
While we recognize the need for healthy utility companies to provide reliable electric service to keep families safe and comfortable, we simply can’t fathom the company’s unwillingness to let utility rates stay at current levels for low-income individuals and families enrolled in SRP assistance programs.
People like Heidi who is battling cancer with chemotherapy. Even with the current discount, she struggles to pay her bills. “Right now I have a choice of paying my utility bill or buying medication,” Heidi said. “If the rates go up, I have to put one before another and that means medication and transportation come before my utility, which is my biggest bill.”
Even SRP’s consultant, Pacific Economics Group Research, pointed out in its report that “higher fixed charges result in disproportionately large price increases for smaller customers,” charges that are already “quite high” compared with other Arizona utilities.
Both APS and Southwest Gas recently agreed not to raise rates for low-income residents, which assuredly provided significant relief for hard-working families already struggling to decide whether to pay the utility bill or feed their families.
In fact, the 2010 Feeding America Hunger in America Survey showed that more than half of all working-poor households in the U.S. were forced to choose between purchasing food or paying for utilities.
The 2012 poverty level for a family of four is $23,050. Two adults working full time at the Arizona minimum wage of $7.65 would earn $31,824 before taxes.
Experts say that income and assets needed for self-sufficiency should total $60,540, but 24 percent of working people in Arizona are in low-wage jobs with an average net worth of $38,616.
The fact is: even at 100 percent of the poverty level, the average Arizona family cannot afford to meet its most basic needs. That’s why utility bill assistance programs are so critical, particularly in today’s difficult economic environment, and certainly during the often-brutal summer months in the desert.
In SRP territory, approximately 670,000 people live at or below 150 percent of the federal poverty level and nearly 33,000 are enrolled in the company’s Economy Price Plan. The largest percentage of these men and women are hard-working Americans, many experiencing poverty for the first time in their lives.
They already sit perilously close to homelessness. The space between where they are now and where they end up could be the difference between what they pay now and what they’ll have to pay if their rates go up.
And that’s a cost none of us can afford.
• Cynthia Zwick is executive director of the Arizona Community Action Association.