Grim Reality in “America’s Finest City”
By Susan Duerksen
“Living in poverty” is one of those shorthand terms that rolls easily off the tongues of news anchors and politicians before they turn to the next topic. We all tend to glaze over the full meaning of the phrase, the grinding day-to-day misery of hunger, worry, discomfort, exhaustion, and despair.
In the city of San Diego, the proportion and number of people living in poverty edged up in 2013. It should have gone down. Instead, 7,000 more people in the city live in poverty now, in addition to the 202,000 who remain in that dire situation from the previous year.
Statistically, it was a small increase, nothing drastic. When the Center on Policy Initiatives reported it in an analysis (63) of data from the U.S. Census Bureau, the main response from local media and others was a yawn.
But consider what that statistic means. It counts only the people whose household income is below the federal poverty threshold, an absurdly low measure in high-cost places like San Diego. The threshold is the same everywhere in the U.S. and varies only by family size; for example, it’s about $12,000 for a single person and about $24,000 for two adults with two children. That’s per year.
People living in San Diego can have incomes substantially above that level and still be quite poor—but not officially counted as poor. To live here with income lower than the poverty threshold is to be destitute.
To fully grasp the obscenity of the situation, consider that we are four years into a recovery from the national recession. Local industry is doing well; the San Diego region’s economic output has rebounded above pre-recession levels. People are working hard and companies are making money.
But wages, here as elsewhere, have not kept up. The recovery in profits is not being shared with the people doing much of the work.
Marie Kaio has worked in fast food restaurants for 35 years and still makes minimum wage. When her husband died suddenly this year, she had to borrow money for the burial and couldn’t afford a full funeral. By the end of each month, she and her teenage daughter survive on bologna sandwiches and food from her church.
Marcus Nichols, 31 years old, works more than full time at two minimum-wage jobs as a security officer. Unable to find a place he can afford to rent in San Diego, he lives in his car and occasionally gets a hotel room to take a shower.
Marie and Marcus each get up and go to work every day. They and many others like them earn their pay, yet remain miserably impoverished.
What’s an Employer’s Responsibility?
When CPI researchers crunched the census data, we found that among all San Diegans of working age (older than 16) who live below the federal poverty threshold, more than 41% are employed.
Remember, that’s the same income level that’s considered poverty in small towns in Alabama, and they are trying to live on it in San Diego. How can it be that anyone is employed and yet in such deep poverty—let alone 41%?
About 135,000 jobs in San Diego pay at or near minimum wage, now $9 an hour in California, which amounts to $18,720 a year for full-time work. When people in those jobs have any family to support, they are impoverished. With one-bedroom rents here topping $1,000 a month, that full-time income leaves precious little for food, transportation, child care, medical bills, and all the other costs of living.
And of course, many workers are denied full-time hours, often so that they can also be denied healthcare and other benefits.
Do employers have a responsibility to pay enough for a person’s time that the employee can live? If they don’t, then we all as taxpayers pick up some of the tab, and people who are working hard to support themselves live without things most of us would consider necessities, including family time, private living space, and three meals a day.
To paraphrase one of our greatest presidents, that’s unacceptable and un-American.
No business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country. By living wages, I mean more than a bare subsistence level—I mean the wages of a decent living.
—Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933
The Income Gap Widens in San Diego
Within the City of San Diego, a total of 144,968 adults and 64,077 children lived in official, rock-bottom poverty last year, with household incomes below the federal poverty threshold.
How many more San Diegans are poor but not below the official cutoff? One reasonable measure is double the federal poverty threshold. A full third of the city population—443,584 people—live with household incomes below that level. That’s still too low to independently meet the basic costs of living in this region. Without the money for basic needs, every day is a struggle to get the family enough food, maintain some kind of shelter, and juggle bills.
That’s how a third of us live in this sunny, wealthy city.
And it’s getting worse. The median household income in San Diego—the level at which half the households make more and half make less—was nearly $6,000 lower last year, adjusted for inflation, than it was in 2007, before the recession began.
That’s certainly not because of shrinking incomes at the top. In fact, the rich in San Diego, as elsewhere, keep getting richer, so the drop in the median is driven by deep pain at the lower end of the scale. If you lined up all the households in the city in order of income and divided the line into fifths, the top fifth took in 51% of all the income in the city last year—more than the other four fifths combined. The bottom fifth—we’re talking about 96,146 households—had only 3% of the total income.
The recovery also has been good for local businesses. In 2013, the regional Gross Domestic Product, a measure of economic output, grew to $1.2 billion above the pre-recession level.
Corporations and the wealthy are doing well. The problem is a hidebound resistance to paying wages that reflect reality and allow a hard-working person to get ahead.
Wages are lowest, and most often below the cost of living, in some of San Diego’s largest and growing industries, particularly hotels, restaurants and retail stores. In the hotel and restaurant industry, median 2013 earnings in San Diego bottomed out at $25,632—for full-time, year-round work. And that’s the median, meaning half the employees make even less than that.
Not Really Getting By
How do we expect people to live here, where they work, on those wages? In CPI’s latest Making Ends Meet report (64), we found that even a single person living alone needs more than that—at least $27,655 a year—to meet the no-frills cost of living in San Diego without help from taxpayers or others. For working people raising children, of course, the costs zoom up from there.
We profiled Adam Carcione, a cook at a large, popular San Diego restaurant, who spent his workdays preparing gourmet meals for strangers yet struggled to afford healthy food for his own 3-year-old son. His wife worked as a pastry chef at another restaurant, and the family got by only by living with her mother.
They were finally forced to leave San Diego to find jobs that paid enough to get their own apartment. Before he left, Adam said that despite two incomes at higher than minimum wage, “We’re not really getting by. We’re not on aid, but we would be if we weren’t living with my mother-in-law.”
Lisette Orosco makes $11 an hour working full-time for a law firm, but must share a bedroom with her two school-age children in a house she splits with two other adults. Even so, as much as she wants to be self-sufficient, she said her family wouldn’t survive without food stamps.
Ivan Jimenez works at a downtown San Diego restaurant and a fast-food joint, and dreams of going to college and becoming a doctor. At 21, those dreams are stuck in the hopelessness of long hours for low pay, because most of his meager wages go to help support his mother and three younger sisters.
One Step Forward, Yanked Back
This summer the San Diego City Council took a crucial step to alleviate the worst of the city’s working poverty, voting to raise the local minimum wage to $11.50 over three years. The amount was compromised down, but a meaningful improvement. And the ordinance also gave all workers in the city the chance to earn up to five paid sick days a year.
However, the local Chamber of Commerce and other business interests then poured nearly $500,000 into a deceptive petition drive to block the Council’s action. Professional petitioners, paid up to $12 per name, went door-to-door and stood outside stores telling potential signers the petition would provide “a chance to vote on raising the minimum wage,” not mentioning that the unnecessary vote would freeze an already-approved increase. By deceitfully convincing people to sign who actually wanted the minimum wage to rise, they were able to finagle the necessary signatures—only about 6% of registered voters—to yank back the desperately needed wage increase. It is now a referendum on the June 2016 ballot.
Opponents don’t dispute that 63% of San Diego voters favor increasing the minimum wage and providing earned sick time (65). Over the next year and a half, those voters will be subjected to a Chamber ad blitz of misinformation seeking to harden their hearts.
The minimum wage increase would mean a raise for an estimated 200,000 San Diegans, including those who make slightly more than minimum wage but less than the eventual goal of $11.50 an hour. That compromise wage level, while not sufficient, would give hard-working people a better chance to keep a roof over their heads and food on their tables.
In October, just two days before the Chamber’s misbegotten signatures were verified, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics issued a report declaring San Diego the fourth most expensive place to live in the country. The only cities where it costs more to live are Washington DC, San Francisco and New York City.
The local NBC affiliate posted the news of San Diego’s high-cost ranking on its Facebook page and got hundreds of comments like this one:
PLEASE everyone that doesn’t like [sic] here—MOVE THE HECK OUT!!! Then we’d have more jobs available and more happy, smiling people. . . . Work hard and budget your money and you’ll be just fine.
The grim reality that people in our community are working hard and yet impoverished remains hidden to those who don’t want to see. Some people do leave the city and some eventually manage to find better jobs, but the poverty-wage jobs will still be here, ensnaring other people, until we force a change.
For too many of our neighbors, low wages are destroying the American dream of rising above poverty through work. We must demand better than that.
65 Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research poll, 2014.
Editor’s Note: We’ll be publishing excerpts from Sunshine/Noir II: Writing from San Diego and Tijuana, an anthology of local writing about San Diego over the coming weeks. As City Works Press co-editor Jim Miller says in his introduction: “… San Diego is still a city in need of a literary voice, a cultural identity that goes beyond the Zoo, Sea World, Legoland, and the beach. With Sunshine/Noir II we persist in our romantic, perhaps Sisyphean, effort to address this need and expose the true face of “the other San Diego.”
The book gained national recognition when National Geographic Traveler recently listed it as a must read before visiting the San Diego/Tijuana region. To buy a copy of Sunshine/Noir II or any other San Diego City Works Press book go here.