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Asking for a Raise

Will a new economic-development blueprint do anything to increase Pima County's low wages?

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Pima County may have passed the 1 million mark in population, but more than two-thirds of U.S. counties have higher average wages. That disturbs some local leaders, while others believe the community is making progress toward changing the situation.

"When one-fourth of kids go to bed hungry in Pima County," says Sandra Hinojos of the Community Food Bank, "people aren't making enough wages."

Marshall Vest, a prominent UA economist, counters: "We beat ourselves up unduly about local wages being really, really low, but they're not as low as people think."

Statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor for the first three months of 2006 show that of the 326 counties listed, Pima's average weekly wage rate of $704 exceeded those of only 98 others.

While local pay grew a robust 9 percent annually in early 2006, both this figure and the average wage rate fell far below those of Maricopa County. The booming megalopolis to the north had an $822 average weekly wage--17 percent higher than Pima County--and was growing at a rapid 10.5 percent clip.

Vest cautions against putting too much emphasis on Tucson's national ranking. He points out someone making $704 a week is paid almost $18 an hour and earning more than $36,000 a year.

Citing two factors which determine Tucson's wages--the area's industry mix along with the supply and demand for labor--Vest explains: "We don't have any auto plants here and have a higher representation in tourism, which tends to have lower wages."

Vest adds: "Tucson is an easy sell. People are willing to accept lower wages to live here in this great climate. We actually have a surplus of labor."

Hinojos points out some of the impacts that low wages earned by working families can have on the community. "(Families) take care of what they need, like keeping a roof over their heads," says the Food Bank's family advocate, "and leave food last on the list, because they can count on the Food Bank."

Hinojos says her agency distributes between 10,000 and 14,000 emergency food boxes monthly, but reaches only about a quarter of those hungry in Pima County.

As part of its ongoing preparation of an economic-development blueprint for Pima County, the Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities (TREO) agency will include the issue of pay. "We're looking at developing strategies to bring in higher wages," says Laura Shaw, vice president of marketing and communications for TREO.

Shaw says that by the end of March, her organization will unveil the long-term blueprint and action plan. According to TREO's Web site, the report will be a "performance-based strategy to effectively position the Tucson region to capitalize on its best economic development opportunities over the coming decades."

Using $250,000 supplied by Tucson Electric Power Company, TREO has hired consultants to prepare the report, which Shaw labels as "very comprehensive."

"The blueprint will identify a core group of industries," Shaw says, specifically mentioning manufacturing and exporting, while adding that Tucson's aerospace industry is already extremely healthy.

"We need higher-wage jobs, but also, from the product-development side, (we need) workforce development," Shaw adds. "The (plan's) not looking just at the status quo as far as wages."

Commenting on the growing divide in pay between Phoenix and Tucson, Shaw believes this community needs to do more to keep its recent college graduates in town: "We have a lot of opportunities but must come together to make (improvements) happen."

When asked why this current economic-development plan should be looked at any differently than those prepared in the past--which accomplished little or nothing--Shaw refers to the thousands of people who have participated in the process, through surveys, comments on TREO's Web site or other methods.

"The difference is community inclusion," Shaw says of the most recent plan. "We feel if they write it, they'll underwrite it."

Tucson City Councilwoman Karin Uhlich represents many low-income families living in her northside ward and has worked in the social-service arena for many years. She is aware of the TREO process, strongly believes it must address the issue of local wage rates and has her own ideas about how this should be accomplished.

"As we're trying to generate higher-paying jobs," Uhlich says, "we can't ignore those that employ large numbers of people, like retail and health care. ... We need economic development that creates middle-income jobs."

While Shaw indicates that service jobs will be covered in the TREO blueprint, Uhlich thinks the difficulty many low-pay employees have advancing beyond entry-level positions also needs to be considered. She fears some large-scale retailers, like Wal-Mart, are altering their employment practices to make it even more difficult for workers to get by and wants to see these issues, along with bringing higher-paying jobs to Tucson, discussed.

"I think our top goal should be to create a thriving middle class in Tucson," Uhlich says about the next 10 years. "We can't stand by and watch the work force earn low wages and the economic disparity in incomes widen. We have to see that diminish significantly.

"We have a 20 percent poverty rate in the city and a low unemployment rate," Uhlich says. "That confirms our low wages, and we need to address that issue."

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