state of our state

Rural Arizonans share views with urban citizens but face unique challenges

By

Mary Beth Faller

People who live in rural Arizona share many of the same concerns as their urban counterparts, but they also face unique challenges and wish for a bigger share of support from the state, according to speakers at the 10th State of Our State conference held by the Morrison Institute of Public Policy at Arizona State University.

“Rural Arizona Now” was the theme of Monday’s conference, which covered a broad range of issues. Experts described dealing with heavy tourism, complicated relationships with the federal government and a lack of resources for affordable housing and road repairs. Here are the highlights:

'Arizonans Speak'

The Morrison Institute released a poll on Monday called “Arizonans Speak,” a web-based survey of 975 residents balanced for age, gender, ethnicity and location. The respondents, who included both registered voters and nonvoters, answered questions on a variety of topics.

Water quality ranked as the most important policy issue, with 80% of respondents agreeing that it is important, and less than one-fourth of respondents believing that Arizona has plenty of water to meet its needs in the foreseeable future.

For rural residents, water quality tied with health insurance as the most important issue, according to Melissa Kovacs, associate director for research at the Morrison Institute.

“Rural residents are more likely to agree that they use water more efficiently than nonrurals, and that they’re worse off financially than the previous year,” she said.

“They feel less strongly than urban residents that trade with Mexico is an important policy issue.”

Other survey findings:

• 82% of all respondents support requiring background checks for all gun purchases.

• Over half believe the laws covering the sale of guns should be stricter, while just under 10% believe they should be less strict.

• 69% of Republicans agree with the statement, “I support deporting all undocumented immigrants,” while 21% of Democrats do.

• 77% of Democrats agree with the statement, “I believe climate change is a threat to Arizona’s water supply,” while 39% of Republicans do.

• 53% of Republicans agree that “I have confidence in Arizona state government when it comes to handling Arizona’s problems,” while 38% of Democrats do.

A rural identity

Kovacs noted that 18% of the survey respondents indicated that they live in a rural area, but according to their zip codes, only about 5% actually do, based on U.S. Census indicators.

Jonathan Koppell, dean of the Watts College of Public Service and Community Solutions, said that the disconnect isn’t surprising.

“There’s something there when a disproportionate number of people identify themselves as being rural. I would put it to you that rural Arizona is important economically and socially, but it’s important psychologically as well,” he said.

“And the collapse of rural life in America, broader than just in Arizona, has a disproportionate effect on the psychological health of America and the confidence we feel as a country because so much of our identity is bound up in the imagery and lifestyle that we associate with rural America.

“We still think of a cowboy on a horse as a quintessential American image.”

Koppell said that the Watts College, which houses the Morrison Institute, has been working to address problems that affect rural communities, including higher risks of addiction and suicide.

“We’re spending time focused on the most pressing issues, including homelessness, which is of increasing concern not only in urban Arizona, but in rural Arizona, where our forests and parks are often homes of last resort for people who have no other place to live,” he said.

He described the college’s One Square Mile initiative as a “systems integrator,” connecting people and programs in Phoenix’s Maryvale community.

“I predict that one day, one of our One Square Miles will be in rural Arizona,” he said.

Eliminating educational inequity

ASU President Michael Crow showed several charts that described the lower rates of high school graduation, percentage of population with a bachelor’s degree and personal income in Arizona’s rural counties compared with the national average. 

“The number of jobs available in the U.S. economy for a person without a high school diploma has decreased 25% in the last 10 years and will decrease 50% more in the next 10 years,” he said.

“I don’t care whether you think that’s fair or good or bad. Educational attainment is the single most important predictor of social mobility.”

ASU is working to close the educational gap through its ASU Prep Digital online school, which provides math and science coursework in remote schools that can’t attract teachers, and through ASU Online, which offers more than 200 degree programs.

“In a place like Arizona, as massive as it is, what we’re trying to do is construct an institution that’s capable of being present everywhere as needed,” Crow said.

“Let’s talk about education not as a place or an institution, but as a force available to anyone, anywhere.”

Rural challenges

Several experts discussed the challenges that are unique to rural areas of the state, which urban residents often don’t even realize.

Affordable housing: Jane Russell Winiecki, past chairwoman of the Yavapai-Apache Nation, said the proliferation of short-term rentals like Airbnb has severely affected the housing market. “The state of Arizona has taken it upon themselves to not let each of the towns and cities make their own decisions for short-term rentals. It’s big government trying to tell all the communities of Arizona that if short-term rentals want to come in, they can do that. It’s devastating to the Verde Valley.”

Matt Ryan, of the Coconino County board of supervisors, agreed that short-term rentals are hurting the housing market. “The last apartment complex in Page was just turned over to short-term rentals. We should be moderate in our approach and say, ‘If you have more than three rentals, you’re operating a business’ and there should be tax equity associated with that.”

Mila Besich, mayor of Superior, said the Resolution Copper project, a proposed mine, could bring many jobs to the area but Superior might not get the full benefits. “Four-hundred-fifty households are expected because of this project, and we don’t have enough housing.”

Broadband: Traci Morris, director of the American Indian Policy Institute at ASU, noted that of the 975 survey respondents, only 44 were Native American. “You know why that is? (The survey) was online. We’re talking about connectivity,” she said. The institute recently released a report showing that people who live on reservations have unequal access to the internet, with 18% having no access and 31% having spotty access. “Telecommunications underpins everything, access to technology, phone, Wi-Fi, the components of what makes life possible in America, whether we like it or not.”

Tourism: Ryan described the impact of heavy tourism in northern Arizona. “We’re being loved to death. There are so many people coming to our region that the impact is tremendous. We have a metro level of visitors but a smaller tax base associated with it.”  He said that tourists will neatly stack up their garbage on the side of U.S. Forest Service roads, expecting it to be picked up. “There’s no trash service out there,” he said.

Poor roads: State Rep. Arlando Teller, who is Navajo and represents District 7, the entire northeastern part of Arizona, said: “I am glad I’m hearing these conversations but what I don’t hear is next steps — how we’re going to do what we need to do about the deteriorating bus routes in tribal Arizona. I was home last week where it snowed, and a school bus had driven off the road. In urban Arizona, you don’t have the issue of ‘How do I get to work when the road is muddy?’”

Natural resources: Jason Whiting, supervisor of Navajo County, said that wildfire is increasingly a threat to his community. “Our forests are very unhealthy right now and the fuel load is not where it’s meant to be,” he said. He also said that the complicated web of federal, state and private land makes it hard to extract valuable minerals from the area.

Lack of social services

In conjunction with State of Our State, the Morrison Institute also released a new research project called “Interactive Maps: Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Resources in Arizona.” The online tool draws from the institute’s earlier research project on child neglect in Arizona. The maps show areas where risk factors are high for issues that affect child well-being, such as domestic violence and substance abuse. Overlaid on that are dots that show where services are available.

The maps show a stark picture with many gaps. The Tohono O'odham Nation in southern Arizona is at the highest risk for domestic violence and has only one service provider. Mohave County in the northwest corner of the state is also at high risk, with only two providers.

Research has shown the effectiveness of home-visiting services, in which a nurse or social worker meets with new parents to provide support and knowledge to create a safe home for children. The map shows huge areas with few or no providers.

There are only two substance-abuse treatment providers for the Navajo Nation, and only four in the entire swath of northern Arizona.

Top image: Andrea Whitsett, director of the Morrison Institute, kicks off the 10th State of Our State conference on Monday in Phoenix. Photo by Charlie Leight/ASU Now