Like 19th century pioneers who believed in Manifest Destiny, they came by busloads. They marched into the Los Angeles Convention Center, not to stake a claim for a plot of land, but to lay a social groundwork for America’s 21st century working families.
More than 5,000 people gathered inside the cavernous facility’s South Hall on September 6. Their diversity encompassed languages and occupations. Interpreters were provided in Cambodia’s Khmer, Laotian Hmong, Somali, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean and Spanish for participants who journeyed from Northern California, Arizona, Washington and New Mexico. Some sew clothes, clean offices and houses, and mow lawns. Some serve fast foods and stack merchandise at grocery markets. Some assemble, in factories, lighting fixtures for new homes. Some package meat products in plants.
Despite their differences, attendees had been quick to see the denominator they share: they are the working poor of America. Their attendance at the Equal Voice for America’s Families campaign, an initiative of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, was to ratify a policy agenda that, if implemented, could improve the quality of their day-to-day lives.
Just like other working families in this country, the low-income and working poor embrace the prevailing ethos of America. They work hard to contribute to the country’s prosperity and to pursue a happy and better life for their families. To obtain the latter, they often defer their own needs in order to address those of their children.
Yet, they can barely pay their bills. Though employed, they often cannot afford to buy themselves the food they prepare or serve to others. They cannot own one of the cars they wash. They cannot pay the fees to put their own children in the day-care centers where they work. They work in banks, handling daily transactions worth tens of thousands of dollars, but may have less than $14 in their own account – if they have one at all.
An instant poll conducted at the convention showed that their earnings hover in twilight between poverty and barely minimal comfort, usually between $20,000 and $30,000 a year.
Levi Varahona, a 35-year-old man from Los Angeles, said, “I make $850 every two weeks but pay $950 a month for a one bed-room apartment. Affordable housing is the most important issue for my family.” Varahona came to the Equal Voice event with his 15-year-old son and said his family of four shares the small living space. “I hope elected officials pay, not a lot, but just little more attention to needs of the people like me.”
Varahona, multiplied by the 37 million people like him, comprise the 7.7 families living at or below the poverty line in the United States, according to the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Launched last year, the campaign will seek to demand from America’s next president, as well as from elected officials, the adoption of the National Family Platform, a document that the foundation claims “comprehensively addresses the issues and challenges that families face.” This stage of the campaign reached its zenith as the three-city conventions took place simultaneously. In addition to Los Angeles, conventions of working poor were held in Birmingham, Alabama and Chicago, Illinois.
At the L.A. convention, there was no visible presence of elected officials, yet the participants hewed faithfully to their belief that politicians would be supportive of the platform which listed, as its top items, affordable housing, health and child care, immigration reform, more employment opportunities, more equitable pay, better schools and a criminal justice system that doesn’t discriminate against minorities.
“The gathering gives us a feeling of closeness and solidarity,” said Heebok Kim, an 86-year-old community activist who is actively engaging in promoting the rights of bus riders in Los Angeles area.
“Working people are always in search of something better,” said Kim. She watched as the crowd began striding out of the Convention center to their buses after a long day. “I don’t expect things to change immediately,” she said. “I just want the policy makers to hear our voices.”
This is Esmeralda Saucedo’s third year at Cal State Los Angeles (CSULA), but it is the first year the 20-year-old psychology major has had difficulty paying for her education.
“I really think that what is happening with the economy is really affecting all the students,” Saucedo told EGP.
It’s not that Saucedo’s finances have changed but she says the delay in approving California’s budget as well as the down turn in the economy has affected her personally.
“Personally I was cut down with my financial aid award and with the California budget not signed I had trouble getting money for my books,” said Saucedo, who is the first generation in her family to go to a university.
Maria De La Cruz is also a student at CSULA, she just transferred there from East Los Angeles College (ELAC) and also says she did not receive enough financial aid.
“I’m an EOP student and for this quarter I only got $274 from financial aid which doesn’t even cover my book fees,” De La Cruz told EGP. “For fall I registered late because I didn’t have enough money to pay for my classes.”
De La Cruz adds that when she finally registered, all the classes were full.
“We have been seeing an increase in applications to Free Financial Aid—known as FAFSA,” Kristan Venegas, assistant professor at the School of Education at the University of Southern California. “That’s something that tends to happen when the economy slows down.”
An increase in eligible applicants to FAFSA can result in less financial aid spread out among students.
Venegas, who grew up in El Monte, says there are two types of student loans: federal government loans and private loans.
“Nationally but also in our state, there are banks that have suspended offering new [private] loans,” Venegas said and added that those institutions have also stopped providing resources over how to finance a college education.
According to Venegas, all of this affects not only the poorest students but also middle class students.
“Middle class students rely on private loans because they don’t qualify for FAFSA,” Venegas said. “But because of the limited loans [resulting from the banking industry instability] now they also don’t qualify for the private loans.”
Since this past summer, Venegas said she has had graduate students in her department asking about more scholarship opportunities.
Maureen McRae Levy is the director of financial aid at Occidental College in Highland Park. Levy says that Occidental has a “robust” institutional loan program and most of her students are not hit as hard as other students. But Levy said she worried for Masters and Doctoral students because there is less government financial aid for advanced degrees.
“It is a huge concern for students who are looking for an advanced degree,” Levy told EGP. “There is a crisis in alternative [private] lending.”
Wendy Monteon, 24, was lucky and received a full scholarship to UCLA, but now at CSULA, where she is taking a post graduate course, she complains that CSULA has put many restrictions on the number of students that can enroll in each class.
Her friend, Vanessa Ortega, 21, who is majoring in Nutrition, says there can be no less than 25 students in each class and no more than 30.
Saucedo says that in the entire school there has been a 40-student limit on each class.
Venegas says public schools are more vulnerable to a fragile economy because they have less of an endowment fund than private schools and have to wait to receive state and federal money to pay their bills.
Today the Department of Education will have a public hearing over the Higher Education Opportunity Act of 2008. The event will give people the opportunity to express their concerns and give recommendations as to how to improve access and financing for college educations. The event will take place at Pepperdine University, one of six universities in the country that will host the hearings.
According to Venegas, the new Higher Education Opportunity Act will include loan forgiveness programs for teachers and counselors.
The event will take place from 9am to 4pm at the Smothers Theatre at Pepperdine located at 24255 Pacific Coast Highway, Malibu, CA 90263.