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Tess Vigeland On Tough Choices For San Diego's Poor

City Heights family Tinson-Ricardos talk to Marketplace Money about tough choices on a limited income.
Jolie Puidokas/Marketplace Money
City Heights family Tinson-Ricardos talk to Marketplace Money about tough choices on a limited income.
Tess Vigeland, Marketplace Money
Tough Choices For San Diego's Poor
GUESTS:Tess Vigeland, host, Marketplace MoneyTom Fudge, KPBS reporter

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition, I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. San Diego is known for its beach, biotech, the zoo, the universities, the Amusement parks. One thing it is usually not known for is poverty. The PRI program, marketplace money, chose the seemingly unlikely venue of San Diego for a series of stories on poverty and how life changes when you have to stretch too little money too far all the time. My guests, Tess Vigeland, host of the marketplace money, welcome to the show. VIGELAND: Thank you. CAVANAUGH: And Tom Fudge is here, KPBS reporter, who contributed to the series. FUDGE: Hi, Maureen. CAVANAUGH: Tess, tell us why marketplace money came to San Diego for this poverty series. VIGELAND: Well, as you mentioned, it doesn't seem like it would be kind of a natural place to locate a series of stories about poverty. You think of the hotel dell over on Coronado, the beautiful hotels here right in the city, the Gaslamp quarter, not to mention places like La Jolla. But the fact is if you look at the numbers, San Diego County has almost exactly the same poverty rate as the rest of the country. And that's about 15%, which is not an significant number. And we talked to a lot of families here who could absolutely confirm that fact, some living well under the poverty line, some living kind of on the razor's edge of poverty, and some really doing their best to climb out. CAVANAUGH: I think anybody who keeps their eyes open here in San Diego knows that, but I think we have a reputation across the country that is probably a little more affluent than we know the reality is here. VIGELAND: Right. CAVANAUGH: And your series really breaks down what it is to try to live, to try to get through the day, get through the week, the month, really eeking by with very limited economic resources. Part of your series focuses on the tradeoffs. VIGELAND: Yeah, we're calling it tough choices. And that really is what these folks are facing on a daily basis. They have to make decisions that might not even occur to a middle class family, certainly not to a rich family. Almost every decision is a tradeoff. A middle class family could fairly easily buy fresh food for the week and fill up the gastank. A poor family is going to have to make a decision one or the other. We talked to a couple of family where is there were no cars. They are counting on public transportation, and that means that it's going to get you longer to get from one place to another. And if it's a tough week, they may have to figure out how to go without either food or transportation. We heard stories of no food in the fridge, nothing in the cubords even,. And of course they still need to work and eat. And one way or another, we all have the survival instinct, and they do find a way to get through. But it's certainly a very, very difficult life. CAVANAUGH: One person you spoke with who is San Diegan, Ricky Ricardo, we have a clip of him talking about feeding his family of six on $20 a day. NEW SPEAKER: We have a budget, $20, how am I going to get 6 people fed off of $20? I got some chicken, and a head of lettuce, and some tortillas, and we make it work. CAVANAUGH: Tell us more about this family. VIGELAND: Is this a wonderful family over in City Heights. We met them at their home, and when Ricky made that comment, he had just come in the door from walking to the grocery store, because they are one of the families that has no transportation. And he just -- I said, well, how do you do this every single day? Try to figure out a way to take that $20 and stretch it for six people in a day? That's breakfast, lunch, and dinner. And he said, it's the classic you clip coupons when you can, you find the deals that you can, and you learn how to eat on an extremely restricted budget. And I have to also point out that his kids came in from aftercare, from playing at a friend's house, actually. And when they all walked in the door, they were showing off the coins that they had collected, just picked up off the street, and they were all so excited that they got $0.11. CAVANAUGH: I'm sure a lot of listeners are wondering, why is this family -- why are the families that you talked with in situations like this? VIGELAND: Right. Well, a lot of it is that you start out in poverty, and it's very, very difficult to climb out. Now, of course some people are able to. But they have had a lot of children, and they've lost jobs along the way and not been able to climb back into the job market. They also have to balance, if you have children, you're having to try to figure out how to provide childcare, which is extremely expensive, while you're working. So they have decided that Ricky is staying home with the kids because it's actually cheaper for him not to work and stay home with the kids than it is for them to find appropriate childcare. When we met with his wife, she had just gotten off the bus to get the kids into a primary where could be during the day so that Ricky can try to go get some further education to get a better job. But those opportunities are few and far between. CAVANAUGH: While you were talking to us about the idea of having to make these tradeoffs in just about every aspect of your life, every single day, what are you going to spend money on, what are you not going to spend money on, what bill is going to get paid, what bill is not? There must be a psyche lodge coltoll. VIGELAND: There really is. And you can see that when you talk to them. Not only are they struggling with providing on a daily basis, but it does something to you as a person. I think a lot of us, part of our value is wrapped up in what we are able to provide to our families and to other family, not just ourselves. And when you are struggling to make ends meet, that sense of self-worth can really take a beating. And that's not something that you recover from very easily. And on top of all that, you have the judgment of other people that comes down on you for these choices that you are making. It's very easy to look at these families that we talked to and say oh, they just didn't work hard enough or they didn't make the right choices. But until you have lived in those shoes, I don't think you should be making the judgment. But that certainly contributes to whatever feeling of self-value, self-worth that they have had. CAVANAUGH: You actually report on a kind of a program that some people, some government officials go through to try to understand, try to put themselves in the mindset, in the situation of what poor people have to deal with every single day. VIGELAND: Yeah, this is something that various politicians have done over the years. I think I just saw a recent news report about a Congressman living on food stamps for a week. And as enlightening as that might be, a week does not make a lifetime. A week does not make a month, much less a lifetime. I think it comes down to compassion, and trying to understand it. This is what we're trying to do in the show next week. Trying to understand what it's like to walk a day in those shoes. CAVANAUGH: When you talk about misunderstanding, and people don't understand this, there's one thing that you hear from people a lot. And that person that we just had a sound bite from, he talked about feeding his family of six on $20 a day, you learn the family trying to make ends meet like that also has two giant TVs. VIGELAND: Yes, we walked into their house, and there were two very large -- I don't even know how big they were, probably 50 inches plus, and a nice computer monitor. And I said I don't want to ask you this, but I have to. You're talking about living in poverty, and yet you have these -- what a lot of people would call luxuries. They did point out that they had gotten the TVs on -- second-hand, some super sale for like $50 each. But $50, when you're trying to stretch $20 a day for food, you question those decisions. But the mother said, well, I have four children. And I cannot entertain them 24 hours a day, first of all. And I certainly don't have the money to take them out to the movies, I don't have the money to put them into, you know, some sort of after-school program. So what I have here is a couple of large televisions. Not that she felt comfortable plunking them down in front of it every day, but she said that's our form of entertainment in this family. A couple of investments for $50 for these televisions, and she said I'm not going to apologize for that. CAVANAUGH: Tom Fudge, you contributed to the series with a look at how the rich and poor view each other. And I want to start with a clip. 1 man challenges the notion that the poor are really poor. NEW SPEAKER: I think the definition of poor today is more like they don't have a 50-inch flatscreen TV. How can you be poor, how can you say somebody is poor if they have a cellphone? VIGELAND: There we go, right? CAVANAUGH: There you go. Who did you interview for that? FUDGE: Well, that fella that you just heard from is a guy who started a company called Kogneck, 30 years ago. He is bob Shellman, he lives in Rancho Santa Fe in a very oplant house, and he's a guy who really makes no apologies for the wealth that he has. He sees himself as a self-made man, who's lived the American dream after growing up in somewhat disheveled circumstances in the city of Boston. I asked him, what do you think of the wealth gap in this country, the fact that there are more rich and more poor, and they're further apart? And he argued with me about the premise of the question. He wasn't sure that all these people that we're calling poor are actually poor. And in a way, he made the point that Tess was making, talking about people who are poor but they have 50-inch flat screen TVs. Maybe there he has a point. The one thing he said where he was very much offbase was how can you be poor and have a cellphone? What I found talking with people is that no matter who you are, if you don't have a cellphone, it's almost like you have nothing. You have no way to communicate with the larger world, no way to apply for a job. And I talked with a woman who is living in our car, and she had a cellphone. But I think we would still argue that she was poor. VIGELAND: And I think this gets down to the definition of poverty and where you are put that line. Certainly the government has a line. But people -- you will sometimes hear politicians, individuals, say, look, if you have a refrigerator, how can you say that you're poor? Look at people in third world countries who don't have that. That is abject poverty. But it's not a fair comparison because we're living here in the United States. The wealthiest country in the world. And to force your fellow Americans to into -- to say that the only way that you are in true poverty is to not have modern refrigeration, I just -- the definitions are different depending where you live. And that comparison is a little off. CAVANAUGH: Now, Tom, your feature for this series was to talk to the rich and talk to the poor. We just heard some strong words about the poor from someone who's rich. Do people in poverty have similar strong feelings about rich people? FUDGE: Well, it kind of depends who you talk to. I don't think many poor people think all rich people deserve to be rich. They acknowledge that some people have worked hard and done well. It kind of depends who you talk to. When I think I was trying to get at with my story is to talk a little bit about the American dream. This American dream we have of social mobility, if you're born poor, can you find a way out of that? And what I found is that people like Bob Shellman believe in the American dream, because according to them, they have lived it. But even with poor people who may look at our society and see it as being very unfair, there's something in them that almost demands that they believe in the American dream because living without the American dream is like living without hope. CAVANAUGH: Yes. FUDGE: I even talked with a young woman who is on student loans, she came from a low-income family, going to San Diego state, and she was a bit like the campus radical, she was quoting Malcolm X, and all this kind of stuff. And she said, oh, American society is unfair, and you can't move up in this society. Then I asked her about herself. Well, what about you? Are you going to improve yourself? Or are you going to be in the same position that your mother is in now? And she said oh, no! I'm going to work until I get my PhD. And I'm going to better myself. So even someone like that, other who you might describe as being cynical about American society kind of has to believe that she can better herself. VIGELAND: Yeah, and just to pick up on that, we're profiling three families here in San Diego. And to a person, there is no self-pity going on here. I will say that. They are not satisfied with their circumstances, but all three of them are doing everything possible to get themselves out of those situations. They were able to get their kids into this childcare program so that Ricky is going to go back to school and see if he can learn a new skill to get a better job. We talked to a Latino family where the son, the 18-year-old, is going to be the first to go to college. And he got a Gates Foundation scholarship that is going to play to UCSB, and all the way up to a PhD. Should he decide to do so. And he worked really hard to get that. And we're also speaking with a mother who although she had a very, very low salary, managed to save $80 a month for seven years, and would able to buy her own home. CAVANAUGH: In your conversations with people who are struggling, you did not apparently find people who thought of themselves as victims or want the government to take care of them as we infamously heard a few days ago. VIGELAND: No, we did not. We had these conversations prior to that videotape of candidate Romney coming out. But like I said, no, there was no self-pity whatsoever, and no woe is me, I'm down-trodden, this is the government's fault, everybody else's fault but my own. They recognize that they are in a situation, they are doing their very best to get out of it. Who wouldn't want to try?

Speak City Heights is a media collaborative aimed at amplifying the voices of residents in one of San Diego’s most diverse neighborhoods. (Read more)

San Diego is known for its beaches, biotech, zoo and amusement parks. One thing it is not usually known for is a place with pockets of severe poverty.

But the American Public Media program Marketplace Money chose San Diego for a series of stories on poverty and how life changes when you have to stretch too little money too far...all the time.

Tess Vigeland, the host of Marketplace Money, told KPBS she chose San Diego because "when you think of San Diego, you don't necessarily think of poverty, at least on the national level."

She said places like the Hotel del Coronado and La Jolla give San Diego a wealthy image, when in fact 15 percent of San Diego County lives in poverty.


"That directly mirrors the national average," she said.

Vigeland spent most of her time in City Heights visiting with families living under the national poverty level. She said their financial decisions come down to "choosing between basics."

"Are you going to pay for food for the day, or are you going to gas up your car?" she said. "That's assuming you even have a car."

KPBS reporter Tom Fudge contributed to the Marketplace Money series with his segment Rich and Poor San Diegans Take Stock Of The American Dream.

Marketplace Money airs Saturdays at 3pm on KPBS-FM. This economy series can be heard on October 6.

Corrected: March 24, 2023 at 12:11 PM PDT
Jolie Puidokas contributed to this segment. Claire Trageser contributed to this report.