A few days a month, Tanya Jackson's cash-strapped neighborhood near the Harbor Freeway experiences a brief but profound economic resurgence.
Long lines form at supermarkets and banks. Stores, now stocked high with extra merchandise, hire additional help to handle the rush. Check-cashing businesses turn a huge profit. Street vendors, sensing the upsurge, hawk everything from leather belts to cotton candy.
It's a "check day"--the first and third of the month, when hundreds of thousands of families throughout Los Angeles County receive their welfare, Social Security and Supplemental Security Income checks in the mail.
Neighborhoods drained dry by hardship perk up as tens of millions of dollars flood a normally withered pipeline, triggering reverberations that will last more than a week. Suddenly there is money to pay bills, buy groceries and enjoy smaller necessities so often forgone during the last week of each month.
Each check day, thousands of lives play out the parable about the profligate grasshopper and the thrifty ant: Those who greet this day with a plan stand a better chance of making it through the month; those who succumb to impulse--who head for the restaurant or the liquor store or the dope dealer--will not. The choices are expected to grow more difficult if Congress approves a Republican plan to cap welfare spending.
For Jackson, 30, an unmarried mother of three who last worked as a store clerk before being disabled, check day means it's finally time to wash the laundry.
"Sometimes the dirty clothes just get backed up because you have to stretch your money," said Jackson, who on May 2 had five oversized washing machines humming at the Joy Coin Laundry at Broadway and 59th Street. "I only brought half the clothes, too."
A legion of shoppers, brimming with pent-up energy and newfound cash, hits the streets with an itinerary, some now able to pay a neighbor $5 or $10 to drive and wait for them at each stop. They congregate at places like the Vermont-Slauson shopping center in South-Central Los Angeles, packing the parking lot, moving from Kmart to Boy's to fast-food restaurants to the drugstore.
By day's end, said a Kmart sales clerk May 1, amid the morning tumult that she knew would grow far worse, "the place looks like a hurricane hit it."
The criminals come out, too. More purses are snatched, more people are killed, more narcotics are sold on the first of the month than any other day, residents and police say. Mail carriers and their trucks become a target: One Watts neighborhood no longer gets home delivery on the first of the month, and Los Angeles County is preparing to stop distributing all checks by mail by the end of the year. Many people stay home on the first to avoidthe crush and the potential of being victimized.
Debra Smith, 29, a mother of two who lives on a monthly $600 check, carefully plans her gantlet, paying rent and other obligations, carrying her purse even more warily than usual.
"By the time the first comes around, I already know in my mind what I have to do--the bills I have to pay, the food I have to buy," said Smith, who has been trained for work under a program for welfare recipients but has yet to find a job, and on check day was pushing a shopping cart in a well-stocked Ralphs supermarket. "I don't have time or money to waste."
Quiontico Riddick, 25, who has the same number of children and the same size check, said she would not stop for gifts.
"I have to give my landlord $400 for rent and I have to spend $100 on utilities," she said hurriedly in between stops. "That doesn't leave much; I'll have less than $100 to cushion me until I get food stamps."
Riddick and Smith live in Los Angeles' 90011 ZIP code, a hard-pressed section of South-Central bordered by Long Beach Boulevard on the east, Main Street on the west, Washington Boulevard on the north and Slauson Avenue on the south.
Nearly one out of three people in the ZIP code receive an infusion of government cash at the first of the month--$9 million in checks for a community of 100,000. Nearly 20,000 welfare checks and 5,000 federal disability payments under the Supplemental Security Income program come on the first of the month; more than 6,000 Social Security checks come on the third.
The high proportion of residents on welfare is a testament not merely to the area's historic poverty but to the steady deindustrialization of the Los Angeles area. Once the local economy was fueled by manufacturing jobs. But those jobs vanished as industries pulled up stakes and moved out, leaving few opportunities behind. Today the monthly rhythm of boom and bust is the community's economic heartbeat.
The first stop on check day is the check cashing agencies and banks, where lines often stretch like those for rides at an amusement park.