Arizona scrapes along the bottom of the nation in children's wellbeing, ranking 46th in 2019 Kids Count data released last week. Lack of affordable housing emerged as a pressure point.
Arizona dropped one place from last year in the annual report on states. But child advocates often have called out Arizona for low rankings over the years.
The 2019 data, released by a national network of activist groups including the Children's Action Alliance in Arizona, tracks key markers for children's wellbeing, such as housing, poverty, education and health.
The report shows children in Arizona are 1 percent more likely than the national average to live in a household where 30 percent or more of income was allocated to housing costs. According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, families paying more than 30 percent on housing-related costs are considered cost-burdened and are more likely to face difficulties paying for necessities like food, transportation and clothing. Arizona ranks 37th in the nation by this metric.
High housing costs ripple into other areas of a child's life, according to Camaron Stevenson, spokesman for the Arizona Housing Coalition.
"It affects every aspect of their growth and development," Stevenson said. "If they're changing schools every year ... it makes it harder for them to develop friendships and social interactions."
Dana Naimark, president and CEO of Children's Action Alliance, said the housing-cost metric is one of the most important indicators of a child's wellbeing.
"It's really a warning sign," Naimark said. "And this is an area where Arizona used to be better than the national average; we've now slipped a little bit worse than the national average. So it's a red flag that we should pay attention now and not wait until we get to the bottom ranking on this measure."
Although the housing market has continued to make gains since the housing crisis in 2008, many in Arizona are burdened by rent.
"We're seeing a lot of development, but only for certain demographics," Stevenson said. "There's lots of opportunity for people who would be considered the middle class to find affordable places to live. However, we're seeing the rent burden increase on those who are living below middle class, and even more so for those who are living on or below the poverty line."
Also, there's more to childhood economic wellbeing than a strong economy.
"What we know is that a strong economy does not automatically translate into good conditions for children and families," Naimark said. "We have to make that connection actively and strategically."
With wages rising slower than cost of living increases, rent burdens could lead to homelessness.
"We've been hearing right that the economy is getting better and all this, but also the housing costs are going up and up and up," said Chela Schuster, director of strategic housing resources with UMOM, a non-profit organization tackling homelessness. "Income plus housing is what ends homelessness."
Such families who end up homeless often go unnoticed, hidden from official counts, according to Schuster.
"Counts often will show that there's no street (living) homeless families. But we know that that's not true," she said. "It's just really difficult to find them. They're afraid that they'll get reported to DCS (Department of Child Safety) or, for safety reasons, they don't want to be found. So families are really good at hiding."
The data show 1 out of 5 children in Arizona are living in high-poverty areas, which is 8 percent more than national figures.
This is further impacted by lack of access to affordable housing, Stevenson said.
"While there are more people buying and selling homes and less people who are having homes foreclosed ... what we're also seeing is that there is a large gap in the type of housing available," he added. "For a large portion of people who live in Arizona, there are only 22 housing units that are within their price range, or being below rent-burdened, for every hundred people."
In Arizona, 38 percent of Hispanic children were in rent-burdened households, compared with 24 percent of white children.
"We know that, historically, families of color have faced discrimination in Arizona and throughout the country in employment and education, even in where they can live," Naimark said. "We certainly see that in the numbers in Arizona, by a lot of the measures children of color have more barriers and are not having as strong outcomes as white children."
Despite Arizona's low rankings, child advocates see hope for the future.
"Both lawmakers and voters and just residents need to realize is that these housing issues, they tie into so many other aspects," Stevenson said. "We have a very very low rated education system in Arizona. This is part of it. Housing stability will raise the quality of education for teachers, children and parents."
For Stevenson, addressing these issues requires collaboration.
"The biggest difficulty for families who are in the situation is that they don't have the means or the time to advocate for themselves," he said. "It's up to the people who may not be suffering directly to stand up, contact their lawmakers, work with advocacy organizations and let their elected officials know that these need to be priorities." ■
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