Photograph by Michael Amsler
Close: 'Things are tight, but we're happy,' Kaysha Borromeo says, shown here with her two sons, Josh and Josiah.
Wage Slaves in Paradise
Going broke and homeless in the neo-feudal North Bay is easier than you might think
By P. Joseph Potocki
In democracy it's your vote that counts; in feudalism it's your count that votes.
Remember the 1930s?
Me neither. But we've all seen the Marx Brothers turn those Great Depression class conceits into high-society pratfalls. Harpo swung from crystal chandeliers, tooting his horn at dullard stuffed tuxedos. Groucho goosed, then seduced, a haughty bejeweled matron, whisking her from ballroom to boudoir, playing the fat lady as the utter callow fool. Amidst deprivations that we today can hardly imagine, folks gathered together in movie houses like tribes, literally sharing in that era's painful impoverishment. While a few hours at the talkies gave temporary cessation to otherwise unrelenting misery, the Great Depression effectively cleaved American society into haves and have-nots—feudal lords and common serfs.
Some 80 years later, things aren't that different.
For example, last November was like some Depression Era melodrama for Kaysha Borromeo. Both the fridge and her cupboards lay bare. Her two growing boys no longer fit into their pants and shoes. She was about to get evicted. Her car insurance had nearly been cancelled twice, car payments were late and her gas tank was nearly empty. If her live-apart boyfriend hadn't been footing the bill, she'd have had no telephone.
Borromeo, 30, faced bad credit and had savings amounting to three lousy dollars. She worried about the $500 charge for her sons' dental work, worried over the late water, sewer and garbage bill, the PG&E bill and the thousands of dollars, evidenced by mail piling up in the kitchen, that she owed because of an emergency appendectomy.
Meet Kaysha Borromeo, poster mom for the latest trend in our North Bay economy—the impoverished trained professional living in the neo-feudal North Bay.
Is Borromeo a spendthrift? A substance abuser? An underperforming loser expecting society to provide her needs free of charge?
Borromeo is a state accredited emergency medical technician who works what averages out to a 42-hour week. This enthusiastic union member carries medical insurance for her family, works a second job caring for an elderly disabled person, rents a modest two bedroom apartment in Rohnert Park, and is as bright and thrifty, hardworking, goal-oriented and inventive a person as you'll ever meet. She is eager to continue her education and hopes to become a nurse.
She and her family may never be wealthy, but Borromeo should be getting along just fine.
Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services, and the right to security in the event of unemployment, sickness, disability, widowhood, old age or other lack of livelihood in circumstances beyond his control.
—Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted and proclaimed by the
U.N. General Assembly, Dec. 10, 1948
Borromeo earns $17.63 an hour as a full-time EMT. Add that to her part-time caregiving paycheck, and she averages about $45,000 annually, falling about $20,000 short of providing what the California Budget Project (CBP) says her three-member family needs to cover their basic necessities. According to the CBP, a single parent family in California's region IV, which includes the entire North Bay, must make a "basic family wage" of $31.67 an hour, 40 hours a week, 52 weeks each year—just to get by.
That's the bad news.
The good news is that Borromeo isn't poor. In fact, she makes more than three times what the Federal Office of Management and Budget's "updated for inflation" figures define as the upper limit of our national poverty threshold. Three times more.
Please enter, if you dare, the fantasy world of federally defined poverty. It's just like in Harry Potter . Harry spends summers in the "real" world, and his school year at Hogwarts, where all sorts of scientific realities, like gravity, are suspended. Washington, D.C., is just like Hogwarts, only in those bureaucratic climes it's economic realities that are suspended, as if some magic wand has made the untenable seem just fine.
In Washington's world of magic, a family of three making $15,735.01 a year is not really impoverished. The federal poverty threshold determines who is and is not eligible for programs like food stamps, Head Start, the Children's Health Insurance and National School Lunch programs. Poverty qualifications, set almost five decades ago, still apply today.
Some social programs stretch to 120, 140 or even 200 percent of the official poverty threshold in order to deliver needed services. There's also the occasional inflationary adjustment. But basically, the equation for the numbers hasn't changed since economist and statistician Mollie Orshansky drew up her eponymous poverty thresholds for the Social Security Administration back in 1965. Perhaps back then, when two bucks could get a gallon of gas, a dozen eggs, a jug of milk and still deliver change; when a house could be bought for well under $100,000, even in California; perhaps then, a family of three making just over $15,000 wasn't mired in abject poverty.
Protect or Expand?
A bone to the dog is not charity. Charity is the bone shared with the dog when you are just as hungry as the dog.—Jack London
In order to make sense of this poverty imbroglio, and to draw a bead on a few solutions, I called Fifth District U.S. House Representative Mike Thompson. I told him about Borromeo. "We live in a very wealthy country. And we have people who are providing essential services, and they continue to fall further and further behind," Thompson sympathized. "And that's just wrong for society to operate that way."
What's being done regarding legislation aimed at this particular group of hard-working poor?
Thompson described a bill passed by the House to increase national affordable housing stock, but couldn't guarantee its Senate fate, nor its chances of being signed into law by our compassionate Decider. Pell Grants for higher education and minimum-wage enhancements were also cited, though I'd pay $5.85 to see anyone who's currently making minimum wage jump up and cry "Hosannah!" over a hike that goes to $6.55 this July.
Next up, I contacted Assemblywoman Patty Berg. Berg was unavailable, but her aide, Maria Aliferis-Gjerde, kindly sent me a pithy poli-speak quote attributed to the assemblywoman. It assured me that Berg recognizes the gravity of hard-working folk going broke and getting booted from their homes, and is fully engaged in the "long political fight to protect state programs that help working families and the working poor."
Note that she aims to "protect" programs. Protect is a perfectly good word. But why simply protect, instead of using that infinitely more progressive word "expand"? Social programs fail to reach many who qualify for them as it stands, not to mention the great many who, like Borromeo, seem to fall into an unserviced doughnut hole. Of course, now we're talking deficit.
With Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's proposed 10 percent across-the-board cuts in the face of a $14 billion deficit, even indigent services will diminish if the ol' scalpel can locate bits of meat on those sun-parched bones. Banish the notion of any place at the budget table for the growing masses of working poor who've yet to taste a single crumb from the Cal State budget buffet.
Affluence creates poverty .
UC Berkeley researchers, whose 2005 study of the North Bay economy (including Mendocino County), titled "The Limits of Prosperity," scoured U.S. Census Bureau and the state Employment Development Department data and found that:
— Poverty has increased eight times faster among Sonoma County's working families than our population as a whole. In Napa, it's 40 percent faster; in Marin, 80 percent.
— Incomes have grown six times faster for the top one-fifth of working families than for the bottom one-fifth in both Sonoma and Napa counties. Meanwhile, the income of the one-fifth top income earners in Marin County shot up by 38 percent, while the bottom one-fifth dropped 2 percent.
— Over one third of all North Bay families can't afford to support two children, even with both parents working full-time.
The Right to a Roof
If the misery of the poor be caused not by the laws of nature, but by our institutions, great is our sin.
Joelle Werner is the planner analyst for the Food Stamps and General Assistance programs for Sonoma County. She knows some sad facts. Say you're a mother of two with not a dime to your name. If you're that poor, you'll receive the maximum monthly stipend: $426 worth of food stamps. But make any amount of income and the calculator goes into subtraction mode. If you're a working mother with two kids like Borromeo, you could earn a whopping $1,861 a month (and not a penny more) and still be gifted with a couple bucks in food stamps to feed the kids.
Like most everyone I chatted with, Werner strongly expressed the need for more affordable North Bay housing. It seems a no-brainer to help desperate people so they don't resort "to whatever desperate measures they need to resort to," she said.
And for those who think college-degreed public servants like Werner are immune to the deprivations of our rapacious housing market, think again. "There's nothing affordable," she said. "I can speak from my own experience. I make decent money—but it's hard to live here. I'm fortunate that I found a roommate, but if I hadn't, I'd be crunched every month for making any kind of house payments."
Michael Allen, a founding member of the Sonoma County Living Wage Coalition who presently works as district director for State Sen. Pat Wiggins, shined light on that peculiar mutton-headed species who oppose affordable housing.
"I'm always astounded when I personally advocate for affordable housing," Allen sighed, "and people start talking about drug users and syringes. We're talking about nurses and teachers and people who are working full-time who are not making it."
Allen also touched on Wiggins' ongoing support for California Sen. Sheila Kuhl's single payer universal healthcare plan, one of a host of solutions needed to lead us out of the state's lower percent middle income morass. But, he says, Wiggins and other Dems are holding Kuhl's bill back because of the governor's certain veto. "A lot of people," Allen said, "have odd ideas about how much it really takes to survive here."
The Housing Authority's leased-housing manager Carol Turner explained that the Section 8 program, also called the Housing Choice program, "is definitely earmarked to very low-income people. As far as middle wage earners, such as many of the people who might be employed in our offices, it can definitely be a struggle to find affordable housing."
I was beginning to see a pattern: Vast hordes of indigents pleading their case for a roof over their heads or grub to quell their tummy ruckus, to college-educated social workers who, like Borromeo, not only make too much money to qualify for programs designed to help them meet their own basic needs, but probably carry finance-flattening college loans to boot.
Unlike food stamps, Head Start and the Children's Health Insurance Program, Section 8 HUD Housing goes by a percentile of the local median income. Maybe that means Borromeo's got a shot at it. As it turns out, she is already on their waiting list. Good thing too, because if she hadn't signed up when she did, who knows how long she'd be waiting for a unit. With some 5,300 Sonoma County applicants in line ahead of her, that's small relief. If and when she moves to the front of the pack, Borromeo will have to strategically cut her work hours to stay eligible. Otherwise, having worked long and hard to just barely keep a roof over her family, she'll get screwed when her HUD number comes up because she's making too much scratch to qualify.
Thomas Peters is the president and CEO of the Marin Community Foundation, one of this nation's largest community granting organizations, with billions of dollars in assets. Peters was quick to remind me that the organization he heads is a funder, not a doer, though naturally, with its mounds of cash, MCF certainly has a word in any funded project.
"Some of the most essential vocational categories in our society are paid at this minimal level," Peters said, discussing the plight of those such as Kaysha Borromeo. "It's a matter of band-aids when surgery is needed. Lots of societies and cultures have faced this in the past and the verdict is usually about the same. If you let inequality—in this case, economic inequality to the point of despair—well up in a substantial portion of the population, it undermines the entirety of the social structure."
Arthur B. Kennickell, senior economist for the Federal Reserve Board, crunched numbers for the Federal Reserve Board's 2003 study, "The Distribution of Wealth in the U.S., 1989-2001," and found that by 2001, the top 1 percent of Americans held fully one-third of our nation's wealth. A second third was owned by the next-highest 9 percent. That left nine out of 10 Americans fighting one another for the remaining one third.
What do those figures have to do with the vanishing North Bay lower middle class? And, more to the point, what the hell does any of it have to do with Kaysha Borromeo?
Curiously enough, it has everything to do with it and with her.
John Records, executive director of Petaluma's Committee on the Shelterless, said, "I find very often that people whose lives have been touched by pain, who have experienced these kind of challenges themselves—they understand. And people who haven't, they may be less generously spirited."
When a man tells you that he got rich through hard work, ask him: 'Whose?'
—Don Marquis (1878-1937)
With bad credit, no rainy-day discretionary buffer and a history of late rent and utility payments, Borromeo hasn't the resources or track record to move elsewhere, so she's stuck—as tied to her rental unit as any serf of feudal Europe was once tied to his land. But what about child support?
"My first child's dad is nowhere to be found," Borromeo says. "They have a child-support court order on him, but I'm not receiving anything from him. Last year, I got a couple checks in a row. He was working somewhere. They attached his wages. I lost contact with him. I tried to look him up in various places. I'm unable to locate him."
Regarding her younger son, she says, "I met a man and we ended up dating. I got pregnant right away and had our son. I married him three years ago and I divorced him."
Does he help with any child support?
"No. Absolutely no. In fact, I'm quite irritated with him because it's taken him this long to get a job."
"Yeah, the whole time we were together he wasn't working. And I've been gone more than a year now. It's been 17 months, and he just got hired. He's on Social Security and he has HUD housing. A voucher."
It made me wonder how Borromeo managed ongoing stress like this. She sighs. "I've gained 50 pounds this year. I smoke cigarettes, even though I can't afford to. I don't sleep well. I have migraines. It affects my parenting. I think I'm a little more edgy with my kids. I'd like to be checked for an ulcer. I have bowel problems, like constipation and then diarrhea. That's directly related to stress. I have panic attacks. I can't breathe sometimes. I have nightmares. I feel like I'm just working to work. I go to work to just pay my rent and just barely pay the other bills I have, and then go right back to work. I don't feel I'm getting anywhere."
Is there any light on the horizon? Any hope to turn back the current onslaught against the North Bay's overtime serfs? I posed this question to State Assemblywoman Noreen Evans.
"You're talking funding programs to help the working poor. In a budget-cut era, it's going to be very frustrating that we can't do that," Evans said. "It's an unsolvable problem. I think that historically, we in the United States and here in California, have said that part of the function of government is to provide a safety net, and we're losing it. It's unraveling."
Burbank Housing's executive director John Lowery is also worried. "From the bigger political picture—historically, politically, philosophically—it's an outrage, and it needs to be addressed," he said. "And I think even those of us who have seen ourselves as liberals or progressives have been so frightened and intimidated by the political economics of neo-conservatism or neo-liberalism where we've done this to ourselves, that we don't even talk about these issues. We don't even talk about the big picture of income distribution and tax policy and public infrastructure investment policy. We don't do that. We need to do that."
Poverty is like punishment for a crime you didn't commit.
—Eli Khamarov, Lives of the Cognoscenti
Yet, with all this talk about struggles to economically survive here, the most important parts of living haven't even been mentioned. Having dinner with friends, playtime with family, doing volunteer work, smooching on a blanket in the park, raising hell at public forums, participating in the arts. Simply doing whatever gives one joy, pleasure and happiness.
What would Borromeo like?
"I'd like for everybody to afford somewhere to live, and I'd like them to be able to feed themselves," she says quietly. "I'd like just to be able to have the simple things in life. The simple necessities. Not like a boat and a mansion. Not vacations to, I don't know, Hawaii or something. We all work so hard for nothing, and I'd like for us to have something to show for it. I don't know how that will happen. But I do know that most of our income is going to the rent and the water bill. If someone could fix that—help us in some way with the cost of living—then maybe we wouldn't have so many patients in the back of my ambulance going insane. You know what I mean?
"I feel like I'm one step away from that."
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