South Shore residents feel effects of rising poverty rates
August 31, 2005
With her Jeep deemed unsafe to drive because of a steering problem, Cory Spaulding will sacrifice an hierloom antique chest and a prized Beanie Baby collection at a yard sale this weekend, hoping to net a few dollars to get it fixed.
“I pray it will last another winter. I can’t afford a new car,” said Spaulding, a single mother with a toddler, who earns her living as a Caesars Tahoe waitress. On bad days she will make $7 an hour and on good ones, as much as $16 an hour. But the good days are far fewer than the bad ones in this tourist-dependent economy.
“Last night, I worked four hours, and I was lucky to have $20 in my pocket,” she said.
Spaulding’s situation is not unique. She is among a growing number of South Shore women and men who have found it difficult to make ends meet when comparing wages to expenses. Housing ownership and rentals are priced higher than the national average, while utilities such as gas and electric have increased across the board. People are paying more out-of-pocket for health insurance. And gasoline prices have added to the pinch for most residents.
So many families have become squeezed that the U.S. rate of poverty released this week rose to 12.7 percent. In California, it edged to 13.3 percent. The national poverty level for a family of four with two children is considered $19,157.
South Lake Tahoe’s median income is a little over $34,000 a year, according to census figures. That compares to about $49,000 statewide.
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“Sometimes working is not enough in communities across the nation,” said Sylvia Allegretto, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute, which released a study Wednesday that tracks situations not uncommon to people like Spaulding. The study suggests that more Americans are living beyond their means.
Allegretto’s colleague, Jared Bernstein, said the growing disparity between the haves and have nots could be the “dangerous creation of a society of tiers, impermeable based on income class.”
Allegretto and Bernstein joined other analysts who predict the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina will cut deep into the already strained pocketbooks of the working poor, especially when it comes to necessities such as gasoline to fill up their vehicles so they can go back and forth to work.
“In the coming weeks, we expect to see huge increases driven by the catastrophe. The effects tend to filter through the entire economy. And low-income families are affected by transportation and energy on a far higher rate than (those on) the high end,” Allegretto said.
Spaulding, 47, may fluctuate in and out of poverty depending on business, but her expenses have exceeded her take-home pay in the busy season. The waitress usually relies on the summer to put away money she earns at the Roman Feast restaurant to supplement her income during the slower seasons.
“Year after year, it’s getting slower and slower,” Spaulding said.
Spiraling expenses such as gasoline, food and electricity keep her, literally, awake at night. Rent amounts to $725 a month for a two-bedroom apartment, $50 monthly for car insurance. With gasoline now above $3 a gallon on the South Shore, she estimates she will spend $200 a month in gasoline. No longer on public food assistance after using up her benefits, she anticipates a monthly food bill of about $270.
She says she may have to pull money out of her 401(k) to pay for utility bills that mount dramatically during winter.
To pay the bills, economists with the California Budget Project in Sacramento have figured a single-parent family would need to rake in $21.97 per hour in El Dorado County. A single adult may rent a studio apartment at $10.40 hourly to pay for the basic necessities. And both parents would have to earn $13.18 each to care for two children, according to the 2003 study, “Making Ends Meet” completed by the California Budget Project.
“I can tell you the cost of living, even for a single adult, far exceeds what they earn with minimum wage,” Budget Project Executive Director Jean Ross said, attributing most of the reason to high housing costs. “I can tell you that for 2005 it’s only going to get worse.”
The study will be updated by the end of September.
The public policy organization lobbies for a minimum wage hike and a broadening of policies of social services to accommodate more people.
The South Lake Tahoe Women’s Center has gotten to the point it discourages some people from relocating here when they call to inquire about the living standards, if it seems they won’t better their situation.
“Housing is always an issue here. We tell them about the weather, and public transportation isn’t that accommodating,” said Leanne Wagoner, the center’s operations manager.
Hoping to enhance her job skills, Spaulding has enrolled in a computer class at Lake Tahoe Community College. She’s frightened of not only what the future may hold for her but what it holds for her son, Chase.
“How am I going to put him through college?” she asked, pointing to her five-year-old as tears welled in her eyes. “I should be thinking about saving for retirement.”
Basic Family Budget Calculator
Monthly expenses for rural California communities
1 parent; 1 child
— Housing – $678
— Food – $265
— Child care – $561
— Transportation – $313
— Health care – $255
— Taxes – $141
Source: Economic Policy Institute, Washington, D.C., 2005
“Making Ends Meet” study:
Basic, Hourly Family Wage for El Dorado County, Calif.*
— Single adult – $10.40
— Single-parent family – $21.97
— Two working-parent family – $13.18 each
Source: California Budget Project, Sacramento, 2003
“Self-sufficiency standard” study:
Living Standards for Douglas County, Nev.*
— Single adult – $8.58
— Single-parent family – $13.45
— Two working-parent – $9.14 each
Source: Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN)
*Note: Assumes 40-hour work week, 52 weeks a year