Article by Jacob Beizer
10:31am | Poverty in Long Beach was the subject of a forum held on Friday in the community center at Martin Luther King, Jr. Park in central Long Beach. Members of the community gathered to gain a better understanding of the city’s economy through statistics and personal testimonies. The event was co-hosted by the Coalition for Good Jobs and a Healthy Community and the Coalition for Clean and Safe Ports, with support from the California Endowment.
A presentation by Jasleen Kohli, a policy and research analyst with advocacy and research organization LAANE, gave a brief overview of the problems faced by policymakers and community organizers who aim to improve the economic well-being of Long Beach citizens, particularly those living on insufficient wages.
“Unemployment only tells part of the story,” said Kohli. “The other part of the story is the crisis of working poverty, that the jobs we do have are disproportionately in low wage sectors.” Using data collected by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, Kohli offered a grim picture of the current status of Long Beach’s unemployed and working poor. The unemployment rate currently sits at 14.2%, almost five points higher than the national rate, and of those who do have full-time jobs, one in four earned less than $25,000 a year in 2009.
Also problematic is the measurement of poverty itself. The current poverty threshold, which is determined by the U. S. Census Bureau using methods that were developed in the 1960’s, is $11,161 for an individual under age 65 and $21,954 for a family of four. These numbers apply to all regions of the United States, regardless of differences in the cost of living from one area to another.
To give a better picture of how many people live on insufficient incomes, LAANE uses twice the poverty level as dictated by the Census Bureau. Currently, 41.9% of residents live on incomes below 200% of the federal poverty threshold, including 54.8% of children.
Related: Click here to download the five-page LAANE study entitled "The Great Recession and Poverty in Long Beach" in a .PDF document.
But the forum was not a purely quantitative analysis of the city’s economy. Also present were two Long Beach residents, Jose Landino, a hotel worker, and Dagoberto Osernio, a truck driver at the Port of Long Beach, who shared stories and personal testimony about life below the real poverty line. One of those residents was Jose Landino, who has worked at the Long Beach Hilton for 11 years. “I’ve heard that there’s been millions of public dollars that have been spent in helping promote the tourism industry,” Mr. Landino said in Spanish, through an interpreter. “I realize that the intent of that support is to also help families. However, that has fallen short.”
Mr. Landino spoke about the struggles of housekeepers at the major hotels in the Downtown area, who perform physically demanding jobs for low wages despite the heavy public investment in developing the area for tourists. “There’s still workers that, after many years, still earn minimum wage. If they do get a salary increase, it’s between two and three percent annually.”
Mr. Osernio, also speaking through an interpreter, has lived in Long Beach for 14 years and has worked as a truck driver for 6 years. He stressed the importance of truck drivers in making available to consumers the countless goods that are delivered to the Ports every day. Despite their integral part in the shipping and cargo industry, truck drivers are often underpaid, and must pay for maintenance costs.
Adding to his troubles, Mr. Osernio suffered a heart attack in 2008. Like his fellow truck drivers, he does not have health care, and had to pay his costs out-of-pocket. “The result of this is that every year we’re going deeper and deeper into debt.
“When I think about the future of my children, I often ask myself if I’m providing them with what they need to succeed. Things like money for college, health care, housing, food, clothing. And my response is no.”
One of the participants in the forum was Dr. Gary Hytrek, a professor of sociology at Long Beach State. He stressed that the goal of the Coalition for Good Jobs and a Healthy Community was not to have laborers find new work somewhere else but to improve the jobs they had. “Often times we lament that the good factory jobs are gone... the thing that I think we often forget is that those jobs were not good jobs at the beginning, they become good jobs because of what people did. And what [Mr. Landino and Mr. Osernio] are talking about is how can we transform these jobs into better jobs.”
Discussing policy solutions to the issues of poverty and working conditions, Maria Loya, a panelist who serves as the Director of the Responsible Hotels Project LAANE, commented, “One example of a policy solution is living wage law, because there’s a recognition that minimum wage is not enough for an individual, as well as families, to sustain themselves. Currently, in Long Beach, there is no living wage policy.”
The event concluded with a Q&A session between the audience and the panelists. One audience member asked, “How do we get from this acknowledgement [of the problem] to making something happen?”
Dr. Hytrek responded that all of the organizations involved in these efforts, “are trying to create mechanisms through which people can engage these issues, with other residents and organizations from Long Beach, and really begin to push our public officials to move on these issues.
“We can’t solve everything at the local level, but we can solve a lot.”