Ice pops being made at the family’s home for sale on the street. Credit Emily Berl for The New York Times
Hardship Makes a New Home in the Suburbs
By JENNIFER MEDINAMAY 9, 2014
New York Times- 5/10/14
MORENO VALLEY, Calif. — The freeway exits around here are dotted with people asking for money, holding cardboard signs to tell their stories. The details vary only slightly and almost invariably include: Laid off. Need food. Young children.
Mary Carmen Acosta often passes the silent beggars as she enters parking lots to sell homemade ice pops, known as paletas, in an effort to make enough money to get food for her family of four. On a good day she can make $100, about double what she spends on ingredients. On a really good day, she pockets $120, the extra money offering some assurance that she will be able to pay the $800 monthly rent for her family’s three-bedroom apartment. Sometimes, usually on mornings too cold to sell icy treats, she imagines what it would be like to stand on an exit ramp herself.
“Everyone here knows they might have to be like that,” said Ms. Acosta, 40, neatly dressed in slacks and a chiffon blouse, as she waited for help from a local charity in this city an hour’s drive east of Los Angeles. Both she and her husband, Sebastian Plancarte, lost their jobs nearly three years ago. “Each time I see them I thank God for what we do have. We used to have a different kind of life, where we had nice things and did nice things. Now we just worry.”
Five decades after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared a war on poverty, the nation’s poor are more likely to be found in suburbs like this one than in cities or rural areas, and poverty in suburbs is rising faster than in any other setting in the country. By 2011, there were three million more people living in poverty in suburbs than in inner cities, according to a study released last year by the Brookings Institution. As a result, suburbs are grappling with problems that once seemed alien, issues compounded by a shortage of institutions helping the poor and distances that make it difficult for people to get to jobs and social services even if they can find them.
In no place is that more true than California, synonymous with the suburban good life and long a magnet for restless newcomers with big dreams. When taking into account the cost of living, including housing, child care and medical expenses, California has the highest poverty rate in the nation, according to a measure introduced by the Census Bureau in 2011 that considers both government benefits and living costs in different parts of the country. By that measure, roughly nine million people — nearly a quarter of the state’s residents — live in poverty.
Not long ago, the Inland Empire, as the sprawling suburban area east of Los Angeles is known, attracted people hoping to live out that good life. Before the recession, it was booming; housing developments were cropping up all the time, quickly followed by big box stores and strip malls to cater to the new residents.
The region was — and still is — the fastest growing in the state. But the jobs have never really followed the people who come here looking for cheaper housing. The median home value is $325,000 and the median rent is $1,690, according to the real estate database Zillow. That compares with $462,000 and $1,860 in Los Angeles.
For many, those costs are still unaffordable. Unemployment in the region hovers around 10 percent and nearly one-fifth of all residents live in poverty, the highest rate among the largest metropolitan areas in the country. By the official federal measure, nearly one-third of all children here are poor. The number of poor in San Bernardino and Riverside Counties nearly doubled over the last decade.
Many would-be workers lack office skills or more than a basic education, making minimum-wage jobs the norm for them. Many here are immigrants — some living in the United State illegally, making them ineligible for most government benefits. But like Ms. Acosta, many others came here legally decades ago and had a strong foothold in the American economy — a job, a house, cars and regular travel.
“This is where poor people live now, and this is where they are going to live,” said Alan Berube, an author of the Brookings Institution study. “When poverty moved out of the inner cities it didn’t just go next door, it went 30 miles away. But at the time those families might not have been poor — they were just chasing the middle-class dream. Then, boom, that evaporated.”
Prosperity Slips Away
Most mornings Sebastian Plancarte, 39, puts on a freshly laundered, collared polo shirt, carefully tucked in. He gets his daughter, Camila, dressed for kindergarten and makes sure his son, Sebastian, has his homework ready for middle school. They are out the door by 7:30 a.m. and he is home nearly two hours later, back to wander parking lots selling ice pops before the afternoon pickup routine begins. He is happy to be involved in his children’s lives, but this is hardly the kind of fatherhood he once imagined.
For years, the couple thought of themselves as wealthy. They bought a five-bedroom house in a suburb just a few miles east of downtown Los Angeles, where they both worked in the jewelry district — she inspected diamonds and he designed bracelets and rings. Making $16 an hour, plus commissions, they earned as much as $2,000 a week. They traveled to San Diego and Las Vegas, they bought their two children the toys they asked for. Just more than a decade after they had emigrated from Mexico, they believed their hopes had become a reality.
But in 2011, Ms. Acosta was laid off. So was Mr. Plancarte, just a few months later. They soon sold the house for far less than they had paid. They drove east, looking for something they could afford to rent, and landed in Moreno Valley, a city 60 miles inland that has become a common outpost for those priced out of Los Angeles. They live in a sprawling apartment complex designated for low-income families.
The paletas have become a centerpiece of their lives. The couple constantly think about the best prices for ingredients and how many pops are in their small freezer; they take orders by phone to deliver to backyard parties. When their son asks to get hamburgers at the local In-N-Out, they have a standard response: “The mathematics are very simple,” Ms. Acosta said. “If you want to eat there, we need you to sell $25” of the ice pops.
▪ “The hardest part is the shame,” Mr. Plancarte said, sitting at his kitchen table as his wife and daughter ate mango paletas doused in chamoy, a blood-red sugary hot sauce. “People say to me, ‘Why don’t you find a job over there, or at that factory or that place?’ First of all, they aren’t there, I’ve tried. But even if they have a job, it’s going to be paying me $8 an hour. So I’ll spend no time with my family to make less money than I make now selling these.”
By Ms. Acosta’s calculation, the couple earned about $25,000 last year, nearly all of it in cash. And while it is nearly $2,000 above the official poverty line for a family of four nationally, it is hardly enough to meet their basic needs. By the time they pay for rent, gas, phone, electricity and food, they have spent about $2,000 a month, Ms. Acosta said.
Her husband is still looking for work; in the winter months they relied mostly on whatever she could make selling cosmetics and costume jewelry door to door. Their lives reflect the contradictions of many living on the edge. The have a 2001 Jeep Cherokee, a small flat-screen television and a few remaining pieces of jewelry. They don’t have health insurance or any savings, and they have not bought new clothes for nearly two years.
For the last year, Ms. Acosta spent much of her time at the local Catholic Charities office, taking self-help classes with other women in similar circumstances. She earned $100 a month enrolling women in courses on healthy diets, balancing checkbooks and parenting skills. She keeps a folder thick with certificates she has earned in such classes. A letter from President Obama thanking for her for volunteering at her son’s school, calling her a “shining example,” is tucked in a protective plastic sleeve. The few friends she has made here, she said, are the women she has met at Catholic Charities.
“My friends in L.A., the ones who still have money, it’s like they forgot all about us,” she said.
The family’s economic descent has proved most difficult for 12-year-old Sebastian, who remembers Christmas trips to Universal Studios and regular mall excursions. Camila, 5, cannot recall anything different from what she has now. Neither child knows that their Christmas gifts came from charity. They are all contributing to the piggy bank in the kitchen; if they can save enough, Ms. Acosta has promised to take them to Disneyland this year. For now, even going to the beach an hour west would cost too much for gas. The local park is hardly a fun outing — it reminds them of their work selling ice pops most weekends.
“We have to be really good actors,” Ms. Acosta said. “But after they go to bed, we just sit and worry about how we are going to pay for things we want to give them.”
When his son asked for pizza recently, Mr. Plancarte took a silver bracelet he had given his wife to a pawnshop, where he was offered a fraction of what he thought it was worth. He accepted, too embarrassed to tell his son they could not have pizza. Ms. Acosta recently went back and saw the bracelet priced at $90 — more than twice what her husband had received.
Traveling More to Make Less
Sitting inside Catholic Charities offers a glimpse of the constant need: this family needs extra cash to pay the utility bill; this single mother cannot find child care to allow her to work a graveyard shift; that elderly man who came from Mexico has no way to pay for his medication.
Imelda Santana, whose desk is just a few feet away from the entrance, is often the first stop for requests. Ms. Santana is empathetic — just a couple of years ago she needed help after her husband left her and she lost her job as a loan officer amid the housing crisis. After working as a volunteer for months, Ms. Santana was hired to sift through requests to see which families the organization might assist. Even on the best days, she said, there are more demands than they can handle.
“We have people here who used to make donations now knowing what it is to run out of toilet paper in their house and not have the money to buy more,” she said. “Even if they get food stamps, it does not cover toiletries. There’s just never enough.”
Yadira Rodriguez, 35, has traveled hundreds of miles looking for work in this county, which is roughly the size of New Jersey.
When her husband stopped earning enough to pay for monthly expenses for their three young children, she took a job in a factory packing boxes to be shipped to retail stores. But the $8-an-hour job was 30 miles north of her Moreno Valley apartment, taking her more than an hour in traffic, twice that if she needed to take the bus.
Since she was classified as a temporary worker, she would leave her home at 4 a.m. only to find out at 6 a.m. that she would not be hired for the day. On days there was work, she would arrive back home 12 hours after she left.
“I could not understand how this was worth the money,” Ms. Rodriguez said. “I would get home and the kids would be tired and cranky and I didn’t have energy for them. How was this going to make my life better?”
After three months, she quit. Her family relies on $800 a month from the state’s temporary cash assistance program to pay for groceries and utilities, and gets occasional help from charities. The landlord has let the family slide on the rent at times, Ms. Rodriguez said.
Like Ms. Rodriguez, many would-be employees see unpredictability as a fact of life. Many social workers see more clients working two part-time minimum wage jobs, juggling schedules to make sure they do not disappoint any boss and hustling to cobble together child care for shifts that can begin or end before dawn. Many are immigrants who speak only basic English after years of living in Latino enclaves, first in Los Angeles, and now here.
“This is the edge of affordability; people came here because they were pushed out to the only place where they could afford,” said John Husing, a local economist who has studied the region for years. “When they came here the primary wage earner could find a job to pay the bills. The problem is that time has passed and we don’t have a lot of jobs that allow that anymore.”
While many of the state’s coastal areas have begun to see signs of an improved economy, the inland region has continued to struggle. Unemployment and foreclosure rates remain stubbornly high here and there are few signs that the area will boom as it did a decade ago. Housing prices have inched up as wages have stagnated, making it even more difficult for families to stay afloat.
“What we have out here is more need and fewer centers of resources,” said Dom Betro, the executive director of Family Services, a nonprofit group that provides child care and food to needy families in Riverside County. “We have more working poor than anyone can know how to handle. People travel further distances to work for less pay because they have to. Even if there is help — and that’s not always — people who need it can’t get to it.”
Social workers here often point to a 2009 study by the James Irvine Foundation, which showed that the region has far fewer nonprofit groups per capita than the rest of the state, with less money funneled in from local foundations.
“There’s all these new problems but no new philanthropic dollars there to address them,” said Mr. Berube, from the Brookings Institution. “In many places there are these de facto systems in place but not the kind of leadership to really address what’s needed.”
When Larry Ellwell became principal of Victoria Elementary School in San Bernardino a few years ago, he was stunned by the number of families who could not afford necessities like clothes and dental care. When he worked with poor students closer to Los Angeles, he said, they knew where to find aid. But in the Redlands school district, home to a university and well-appointed mansions, there were few free clinics or other outlets for assistance. So he began to offer them — now the school hosts a roving clinic staffed by medical students and a clothing giveaway known as Victoria’s Closet.
“It’s a lot of triage work — who needs something the most and what do they most need,” Mr. Elwell said. “There’s no stigma anymore, because so many people are just trying to scrape by and make it work.”
For Ms. Acosta, scraping by recently took a new turn: She moved to the other side of the desk at Catholic Charities, taking a job as an intake worker. She works about 30 hours a week at $12 an hour, giving people the same kind of help she seeks. Even now, she is not earning enough to stop selling ice pops.
Just a couple of years ago, when the dry cleaner called reminding her to pick up a pair of pants, Ms. Acosta told him to give them to charity. “Now I am one of the people taking giveaways,” she said. “I see people all the time in worse positions than we are in. The kids are healthy, we have a roof. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for.”