By Antoine Abou-Diwan
Government programs help Maritza Ramirez put food on the table and a roof over her head.
Ramirez and her five children live in a government-subsidized housing development on the east side of Calipatria. She earns minimum wage at a restaurant in Brawley. When business is good, she works about 35 hours per week.
Summers are especially tough, she said. Business is slow and staff hours get cut just as her home's electricity bill reaches its peak.
The $700 in food stamps that she gets every month help, as does the government school lunch program that her children are enrolled in.
Ramirez and her family are among the millions of Americans who are the face of the War on Poverty, living below the federal poverty line and surviving on the social safety net that by and large went into effect 50 years ago this month.
When President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on economic suffering and unemployment in his 1964 State of the Union Address, he laid the ground for government programs that are still in existence today, like food stamps and Head Start.
At the time of his address, nearly 4 million households survived on less than $3,000 per year, and the national poverty rate hovered around 25 percent.
"Unfortunately, many Americans live on the outskirts of hope — some because of their poverty, and some because of their color, and all too many because of both. Our task is to help replace their despair with opportunity,"
Johnson said to Congress and the American people on Jan. 8, 1964.
"This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America. I urge this Congress and all Americans to join with me in that effort."
Ramirez, however, objects to the notion that her family is poor. "We're in the middle," she said.
But, then, she breaks into tears.
"I can't afford to take them anywhere. There's priorities that we have," she said, tearfully. "Next year, if I can, I want to take them to Disneyland. But my car is barely making it. Maybe next year."
A pledge to change the nation
On Aug. 20, 1964 -- just months after Johnson pledged better schools, training and job opportunities -- he signed the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, his signature legislation in the War on Poverty. It expanded America's social safety net with a slate of anti-poverty programs like Job Corps, adult education grants and rural low-income loans. The Economic Opportunity Act has since been repealed, but many of its programs remain.
Whether the War on Poverty has been successful is a question that lingers some 50 years later.
The number of people living below the poverty threshold in the Southern California Association of Governments region increased from 1.89 million in 1990 to 3.2 million in 2012. Imperial County's poverty rate hovers at 23.2 percent and nearly 33 percent of the county's children live in poverty. The metropolitan planning agency's region covers the counties of Imperial, San Bernardino, Los Angeles, Riverside, Orange and Ventura.
"I think we're in a better place in terms of human suffering," said Gordon Dahl, University of California San Diego economics professor.
In the early 1960s, poverty was measured by consumers' ability to buy a "basket" of common food items.
By that measure, incomes haven't risen much, according to Dahl.
But, when government benefits like disability payments, Social Security and the Earned Income Tax Credit, the latter of which was signed long after the Economic Opportunity Act, are taken into consideration, the picture looks much better.
"In 1967, 26 percent of the population lived under the poverty level. In 2012, it was 16 percent," Dahl said.
The severity of America's poverty has declined markedly, Dahl noted.
"The elderly had a 35 percent poverty level," he said. "That group has an incredibly low poverty level today of around 12 to 13 percent. We've largely gotten rid of elderly poverty."
"What we haven't done is build lots of low-wage jobs for people to pull themselves up," Dahl added. "If you didn't have government intervention, we'd have the same poverty level as before."
A portrait of the working poor
For Ramirez's household, there is little in the way of luxuries. Her children wear secondhand clothes and hand-me-downs. Her car needs maintenance, so she takes the bus to work if her hours are few.
Ramirez's kids remember the turkey that their local water utility gave them one year. And, the local law enforcement agencies' Shop With a Cop program helped with the Christmas shopping.
Ramirez proudly notes that her kids are doing well in school, despite her family's challenging circumstances.
Fifteen-year-old Anya is the oldest. She said she has a 4.0 grade-point average, wants to study at University of California, San Diego and eventually become a nurse.
Nallely, 13, has a 3.0 GPA. She wants to go to culinary school to be a pastry chef. She helps cook many of the family's meals.
And 10-year-old Bernie is on his school's honor roll.
Of the 1,081 kindergarten through 12th-grade students in the Calipatria School District, 80 percent are enrolled in free and reduced lunch programs, according to Calipatria Mayor Maria Nava-Froelich.
"There are no jobs here, and the few jobs are taken," she said. "A lot of our people worked at Brawley (National) Beef."
National Beef, which employed some 1,300 people, closed its doors in late spring.
Food insecurity grows among poor
The number of people that relies on the Imperial County Food Bank has tripled in the last six years.
"In 2008 we were serving 7,000 people. Now, we're at 20,000," said Sara Griffen, executive director.
The food bank operates a mobile food pantry and supplies food to 45 sites in the county.
More than half of the residents served are children, Griffen noted.
Alba Sanchez oversees the food bank's U.S. Department of Agriculture commodities program.
Beneficiaries must meet government income guidelines, Sanchez said. Most are without work or are the working poor.
Recipients get one to five bags of food per month. Each bag includes a source of protein, like beef stew. Most of the items are canned.
A large percentage of the program's beneficiaries are senior citizens on fixed incomes, she noted.
And, since National Beef closed, the lines have become even longer, she said.
Workforce education level is a challenge
The unemployment level in Imperial County is stubbornly high. The economy is largely agricultural, and the best-paying non-ag jobs are with any of the government agencies that operate locally.
The unemployment level isn't as high as it was during the recession, but, at 22 percent, it outpaces the state average by a wide margin and is among the highest in the nation.
The bad press Imperial County gets hampers economic development efforts, according to Tom DuBose, chairman of the Imperial Valley Economic Development Corp.
"People tend to get caught up in those headlines without looking at the opportunities here," DuBose said. "We are looking to turn our high unemployment numbers into opportunities for businesses."
IVEDC pitched that large labor pool to aerospace contractor General Dynamics and meat processor National Beef when they were trying to bring them to the region, DuBose said.
Both companies have since closed their operations locally.
Availability of land and water should make Imperial County attractive to businesses that are looking to grow in California, said Tim Kelley, IVEDC president and chief executive officer. Rural development programs are available through the USDA and other government agencies. But, the relative lack of an educated workforce holds is a challenge, he noted.
"Very successful regions have the ability to nurture businesses by a steady flow of an educated workforce," Kelley said. "LA has UCLA; Silicone Valley has UC Berkeley and Stanford."
That isn't to say that high tech firms can't be successful in the Imperial Valley.
Simbol Materials and Synthetic Genomics have facilities at the Salton Sea, and both require a high level of education.
Just recently, Imperial Valley College entered into a memorandum of understanding with CETYS University just over the border in Mexicali. The understanding establishes an education pathway for local engineering and computer science students.
The increase in poverty and Southern California's growth industries top the agenda for a SCAG summit in Los Angeles later this month.
"Although government subsidy programs have lifted millions of families over the poverty line, we have not done a good job of moving people from dependency to self-sufficiency," according to a SCAG statement. "Factoring out those safety nets, the true 'market poverty rate' today is actually higher today (28.7 percent) than it was in 1967 (27 percent)."
Nava-Froelich sees it -- her communities are living it.
Calipatria and its neighbor just north, Niland, are among the poorest communities in the Imperial Valley. What little work that is available is in the farm fields.
"A lot of the families worked at the (cattle) feedyards, but they scaled back their workers," Nava-Froelich said.
"A lot of families are broke. They're counting their dimes and nickels. They're struggling at the end of the month. I see a lot of recycling happening," she added.
This story first appeared in the Imperial Valley Press, Aug. 10, 2014.