Public Comment

Economic Bizarro World

By Sonja Fitz
Saturday June 19, 2010 - 05:08:00 PM

The economic news goes from bad, to worse, to bizarre. And poor people currently find themselves knee-deep in Bizarro world. 

When the economy crashed at the end of 2008, the Feds threw buckets of money at the banks without mandating that they pump up their lending to Main Street or cut out those ginormous executive bonuses. 

While Main Street struggled to stay above water and the White House turned its attention to health care, abandoning first universal care then the public option in order to pass a severely watered down version, defeated Nevada Republican Senate candidate advocated bartering chickens for health care. 

Meanwhile, with businesses folding in every community and nearly 10% of Americans out of work (with the usual much higher percentages for people of color), according to the Federal Reserve nonfinancial companies have socked away $1.84 trillion in cash and other liquid assets as of the end of March, up 26% from a year earlier and the largest-ever increase in records going back to 1952. 

And while U.S. household debt fell for the seventh straight quarter in early 2010, former U.S. Secretary of Labor Robert Reich points out in the Huffington Post that this deceptively good news belies the fact that debt fell simply because Americans who sank waist deep into debt over the last decade as their wages dropped when adjusted for inflation have pared back their debt and are spending far less. 

And locally? As foreclosures skyrocketed, the number of Bay Area people receiving food stamps rose 53%, and nonprofit agencies saw their demand for service increase 40% and more, how did Alameda County respond to the economic crisis? It decided that saving some money by shoving poor people off the General Assistance loan program for nine months of the year and into survival freefall was an acceptable trade off. 

Huh?? Living on less is one thing, living on nothing is quite another. Most of us feel squeezed at the end of the month when money is tight before our next paycheck. Imagine the vice-like squeeze of having no check at ALL.  

The people served by the organization I work for, Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (, struggle to make ends meet even when receiving the whopping $250 or so they get from General Assistance. Without it, they will be in the shelter longer competing for jobs and housing against people with better skills and credit histories, nicer clothes, and more references. Or on the street. Or in jail—nailed for making a ‘public nuisance’ of themselves by having no home. 

We all know that the Bay Area is one of the most expensive places in the country to live, but some of us may not realize just how expensive it is. According to Struggling to Make Ends Meet in the Bay Area, a 2009 Financial Self-Sufficiency Report by United Way, even before the global economic crisis, “having a job was not a guarantee of adequate income as 86% of Bay Area households with incomes below the Self-Sufficiency Standard had at least one worker”. The Self-Sufficiency Standard is a ‘living wage’ measure formulated by assessing what it actually costs to pay for basic needs, as opposed to the outdated arbitrary ‘povery level’ standard used by public agencies. According to the report, many local families hold down three full-time minimum wage jobs to pay for basic necessities.  

And the inequity has some familiar faces: High school drop-outs are four times as likely to have inadequate income compared to those with at least some college education; families headed by single women are almost two times more likely than two-parent households to have income below the standard; and 43% of Latino households and 38% of African American households have insufficient income to meet their essential needs compared to 14% of white households. 

What is that definition of insanity again? Doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result? Investing in education, jobs, housing, and health care consistently reaps benefits for individuals, for the community, and for the country, while slashing cuts to human services just drains the community of the productivity and collective health and energy that would help put the economy back on track—to say nothing of the suffering it inflicts on poor people, who have experienced an “economic crisis” day after day for years, not just as a temporary blip on Wall Street’s ticker tape. 

By Sonja Fitz, Development Director for Building Opportunities for Self-Sufficiency (BOSS), an Alameda County nonprofit organization that provides housing, health, economic development, and social justice programs to help over 1,500 homeless people each year work towards stable independent living.