Southern Arizona’s economy for much of the past was ruled by the boom-and-bust realities of the extractive and agricultural industries. Worldwide prices, the fickleness of the market, and the constant threat of a destructive act of nature made economic life here before World War II a wild ride.
Booms in the cattle industry in the 1890s and cotton before and during World War I created large industries in the state virtually overnight. The overgrazing of an aridland open range and monoculture agricultural took their individual tolls, however, and both cattle and cotton really only influenced life here on a major scale for a relatively short time.
Of the state economy’s well-known “Five C’s”—copper, cotton, cattle, citrus, and climate—the others have fared better than cotton and cattle, both of which are now very minor elements of the state’s economy. Copper mining, the state’s claim to fame in economic circles for several generations, was nearly moribund until 2005, when worldwide prices hit record levels (thanks, in large part, to a global building boom centered in China, and the ubiquity of copper in consumer electronic products and other modern necessities), and previously mothballed pits have opened again and startup firms from outside the state are searching the desert for new pit sites.
This may be just a blip on the overall economic radar screen, however. The extractive and agricultural industries are no longer the primary economic engines of Arizona and the West and haven’t been for some time. According to a report by the Tucson-based Sonoran Institute released on September 29, 2006, fewer than 5 percent of the West’s counties have more than 20 percent of employment in traditional extractive industries, and agriculture and ranching made up just 4 percent of total employment in the west as of 2000.
In the Tucson area in 2008, just 1.9 percent of workers were employed in mining and ranching, according to figures complied by the Pima Association of Governments.
A boom in single-family housing and urban and suburban development has enraptured the state for several decades, though as of this writing that boom has predictably gone bust. Still, despite its boom-and-bust ways the state has often been somewhat impervious to national economic slowdowns, primarily because of its always-steady growth. Growth fuels itself, and an economy that is growing is always perceived to be healthy.
Between 2000 and 2006, Arizona’s population grew by about 20 percent. The deep truth of the Arizona economy, and one that holds for the entire West, is that the service industry (much of it tourism-related), with its low wages and transient workers, is the hottest running economic engine here and has been for many years. All over the West non-labor income like investments, disability, and retirement payments come in a close second to the service industry as a top economic driver. The median household income in Arizona is about $44,000 with 2.6 people per household. Some 15 percent of Arizonans live below the poverty line.
More locally, Tucson has a somewhat diverse economy, but much of it is based on the service industry. Something like 85 percent of the jobs here are service-related, according the Pima Association of Governments. Top employers in town include the University of Arizona, the city and county governments, and Raytheon, a company that makes weapons systems. The tourism industry is also a particularly robust employer in the Old Pueblo. The average annual income in the Old Pueblo is around $30,690, and the median household income is around $52,000.
© Tim Hull from Moon Tucson, 1st Edition