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United Way: San Diego Families Struggling To Make Ends Meet

June 17, 2013 12:59 p.m.

Guests:

Shaina Gross, vice president of impact strategies and mobilization, United Way of San Diego County

Murtaza Baxamusa, Ph.D., secretary-treasurer, San Diego Middle Class Taxpayers Association

Related Story: United Way: San Diego Families Struggling To Make Ends Meet

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Our top story on Midday Edition United Way of San Diego County is out with a new report. It outlines just how hard it is to make ends meet in San Diego. The report called San Diego speaks out for opportunity and is the result of conversations with individuals and families, who talk about trying to find work, pay bills, get transportation and take care of their kids. There are some hard facts about what San Diego is doing wrong in the report, but also some suggestions for change. I’d like to introduce my guests, Shaina Gross is Vice President of Impact Strategies and Mobilization with United Way of San Diego County. Shaina, welcome to the program.

GROSS: Thank you.

CAVANAUGH: And Murtaza Baxamusa is Deputy secretary-treasurer of the San Diego Middle-Class Taxpayers Association. Murtaza, welcome back

BAXAMUSA: Thank you for having me, Maureen.

CAVANAUGH: Now, Shaina this report begins by acknowledging that the recent economic downturn exposed how fragile many segments of our economy are. Can you tell us a little bit about that?

GROSS: Sure, so what we found is that we have certainly people who are in poverty according to Federal poverty levels but we also have a population of what we refer to as working hard but falling short. Individuals who are technically out of poverty, making more than the poverty level but still struggling to make ends meet and being able to plan for the future.

CAVANAUGH: It's clear from the way the report is presented that the United Way really talked to people about their economic struggles. How was the report actually put together?

GROSS: We spent about I would say nine months to a year talking to the community. So at United Way we are focused on education income and health. We think those are the building blocks and one of the core principles is that the community is an expert on what challenges they are facing, what challenges or we would not talk to the business community members, people working in nonprofits, teenagers, we talked to individuals who are homeless living in their cars in a safe parking lot, we talk to people who are working hard, working several jobs and struggling to make ends meet and these are the things they told us.

CAVANAUGH: You say something like the first thing in the report said something everybody thinks about nobody wants to talk about, money. How did you get people to talk about money?

GROSS: We started by saying what does your ideal community look like what kind of community do you want your children to grow up in. People quickly identified the one opportunity and opportunity links back to education and employment. So quickly the conversation turns to how is employment and how is your income affecting the opportunity you want for your family.

CAVANAUGH: You identify four major areas that you learned in those discussions what were they? I think one of the things as you've already said that people have a difficult time making ends meet and people have trouble accessing resources. That's an interesting one, too.

GROSS: Absolutely we found that their income benefit systems complicated there are a lot of different ways that you apply, there are a lot of different income thresholds for eligibility, so it can be complicated to figure out how you do that and imagine if you get a $.50 raise and all of a sudden your eligibility changes.

CAVANAUGH: Skills don't match jobs, that's interesting.

GROSS: What we found is employers have jobs available but they can't find people to fill the jobs and we talked to individuals who said that they got a certificate, they completed this program and yet nobody is hiring them. So we found there's a disconnect and employers are not engaged in the curriculum development of training programs and a lot of training programs do not cover basic education reading, writing, math because we assume that is taking place someplace else.

CAVANAUGH: Here's one also this is the fourth major area education, information and education income are linked I think a lot of people in the social services have been saying that for many years.

GROSS: Absolutely. Bank of America who supported our work in this conversation about how those are linked and it was really interesting because what we find is that when you are working two or three jobs there is not time to help your kids with their homework or meet them at the bus stop at the end of the day and often your tough choices are do you pay to fix the car that gets you to work or do you pay for dental insurance so we see very quickly that education income health are really integrated and intersects so well United Way thinks of them as sort of three legs of the stool when we talk to community members often they did not separate them, these are all one continuum for them that they struggle with

CAVANAUGH: With the struggle of life. Murtaza, the United Way makes it clear, and as Shaina said ,federal poverty guidelines don’t necessarily take into consideration the high cost of living in San Diego. This is what you've been saying for years.

BAXAMUSA: Correct. Absolutely, if you look at what is poverty, the federal guidelines that were developed in 1963 based on the cost of food are inadequate for San Diego, especially the cost of living. The federal standard for a single adult is about $12,000 and for two adults with two school-age children it's about $23,000. Now, with that definition, too, 460,000 people in San Diego live in poverty. Even with that kind of definition. An important issue to remember here is the working poor. 7% of San Diegans, 112,000 San Diegans who I would consider to be working and poor under the federal guidelines of good question is to ask why is it that that San Diego workers are still struggling to make ends meet.

CAVANAUGH: Some of the quotes and United Way report are really quite sobering. They take you back because it is the things that you have been saying Murtaza but to hear it from people's mouths as well is really fascinating. I'm thinking of the quote in there that talks about the disparity of income levels in San Diego that some people have it really good but a lot of people don't and there doesn't seem to be much crossover.

BAXAMUSA: The problem is the way in which we create jobs. We create very few high-quality jobs and a significant chunk of low-wage jobs. Just look at the new latest employment report in April we created 2800 jobs which is good that we create jobs but 85% of those were in industries that pay $25,000 or less what does that do to the average income in San Diego? It is not enough to make ends meet.

CAVANAUGH: There is even someone who is quoted as saying the middle class doesn't exist anymore.

BAXAMUSA: Unfortunately you have to look at the middle class into situations one is in terms of demand which is the goods and services that are consumed by this middle-class base as well as the supply which means that the innovation and skills and training that a middle-class can invest in their cells in themselves and their children and that's where we are building a future that's not sustainable.

CAVANAUGH: Shaina, you talk about the goal should be more than simply getting people out of poverty by really establishing themselves in self-sufficiency can you explain what you mean by that?

GROSS: There's something called the self-sufficiency standard credit by the inside center and it takes into account many of the things that were mentioned in terms of what is the real cost of living in San Diego about childcare transportation healthcare and those are the kinds of things we should be looking at when we see that someone is self-sufficient. So for us moving somebody out of poverty which renewal is an outdated measure that really isn't that relevant here in San Diego that is not a measure of success. For us success is getting somebody to self-sufficiency.

CAVANAUGH: For us even when the economy improving there are many San Diego and still watching this sort of financial tightrope can you give us an example of what you mean by that? I know that there is one graph that shows what you would make at a minimum wage if you had three jobs.

GROSS: Yeah. I think that it's, many people do not have savings. Any little small unexpected expense can really throw off their budget for the month. So, you think of maybe something goes wrong in your car, or a medical expense, or your kids, you know, date break their glasses, these things that you have not budgeted in, the tight rope is very precarious so individuals are struggling each month to make sure they can pay their bills and are not saving for retirement or college educations.

CAVANAUGH: I want to ask you both this let me start with you, Shaina, the report seems to be saying that it is just up to the individuals to pull themselves out of their economic struggles but that it is in all of our interests to help more Sandia goods become more self-sufficient. Can you make the case for us?

GROSS: Absolutely. I think when we talk to the community whether they are individuals or owned a business everybody describe the same community. They want safe fleshing communities were children and families have opportunities and we need to all work together for that so at United Way we have several volunteer opportunities where you can help young people learn job skills, those soft skills of how to behave in a workplace. There are tangible volunteer activities that you could sign up for. The other thing is that we need to change the conversation. We need to start saying what are the jobs that we need to focus on and how do we train our individuals to get into jobs that will provide a self-sufficient income.

CAVANAUGH: Murtaza, the conversation for a long period of time is you know we give you the tools you've got to pull yourself up and for people who are doing well there has not been much of an impetus to really let the hand to help pull people up. Why would that benefit us all?

BAXAMUSA: So let me pose that in a different way what about people who are actually doing everything they can to be able to pull themselves up. 25,000 people in San Diego working full-time year-round, and yet still daily thunder, but if the federal poverty level. I would suggest that you look the minimum wage for example in California if you work full-time year-round with a minimum wage job you are making $16,640. Not enough to not just support a family, but not enough to support yourself in San Diego. So therefore we need to look at underlying policies that create poor quality jobs as well as the subsidies that we give to creation of these kind of poor quality jobs. So those are two important things. Second in terms of pulling up by bootstrap training, the cost even though the family incomes have stagnated for the last three decades, the cost of education has gone up significantly for college four-year degree 250% over the last three decades. So, how do you expect our technician to invest in our children's future with the cost of education has increased so much. Training, there has to be not just a trading system but we have to invest in our community colleges and the partner between labor and management to make sure that a curriculum is developed so we can bring all workers up.

CAVANAUGH: What are some of the other changes that are proposed in this report, Shaina?

GROSS: We want to also work with the systems that exist so the County of San Diego has actually changed their benefits and enrollments system quite a bit and have electronic avenues to be able to apply the partnering with 211 so you can apply over the phone. Many people do not know that the changes have occurred and are still trying to navigate the system without this new information. So really spreading the word about the way the system has been evolving in response to some of the struggles that people have verbalized.

CAVANAUGH: And also what about the idea of trying to get people trained and afforded jobs that are really going to be able to get them out of this Into self-sufficiency?

GROSS: Our goal is to be able to work with employers and say what are you looking for an implant partner with employment development curriculum that way when someone creates a certificate we know it meets the needs of the employer.

CAVANAUGH: Murtaza, do you see any need to bring wages up to attract better paying jobs to our community?

BAXAMUSA: Yes there are several efforts public-policy first increase in the minimum wage in California. That is important. We must increase it to $10 an hour. Second we must pay living wages to hotel workers that is a significant chunk of the economy that is being neglected. We must make sure that job training requirements within for example construction projects so that apprentices get trained on the job with public dollars those are a few steps that could make this economy move forward.

CAVANAUGH: Would you like to see happen with this report, Shaina?

GROSS: I think I've, as you said some of the quotes are really powerful, so I hope that it personalizes the situation. I think often we can talk about well, people in poverty, or we just need to work harder. But, we see here is we've talk to real people that are struggling that want something better and are working very hard, but still falling short. So I would hope that this sort of humanizes the population now we are talking about and that additional people become committed to wanting to serve the population and improve the conditions.

CAVANAUGH: The report, telling to our report is on the website at KPBS.org. It's very readable, very accessible, did not take me long at all.

GROSS: We try to get the jargon out and make it real people words.

CAVANAUGH: Exactly this one is not hard to read. Thank you very much. I’ve been speaking with Shaina Gross she's Vice President of Impact Strategies and Mobilization with United Way of San Diego County and Murtaza Baxamusa is with the San Diego Middle-class Taxpayers Association. Thank you both very much.

BOTH: Thank you