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1 in 3 Workers in Ventura County Can't Pay Basic Costs, Study Finds

Those earning less than $10 an hour are found to be struggling to make ends meet, let alone advance.

June 17, 2003|Jenifer Ragland | Times Staff Writer

Almost one in three working people in Ventura County do not earn enough to provide reasonable food, clothing, shelter and other basic needs for themselves and their families, according to a new study aimed at raising public awareness about the issue.

These workers, who make less than $10 an hour, are not just teenagers or high school dropouts, and they don't all fall within the federally designated poverty level, said Charles Maxey, dean of the business school at California Lutheran University and one of the authors of the report, which was commissioned by the Ventura County Workforce Investment Board.

For the most part, the study finds, the workers are 20 to 54 years old, were born in the United States and have at least a high school education. They are considered "working poor" because their jobs -- in industries including agriculture, hospitality and retail sales -- don't cover increasing costs in housing, child care, transportation and other expenses.

More than 116,166 people in Ventura County fall into this category.

"That's a lot of people, and that's a problem," Maxey said at a seminar last week attended by county business leaders, public officials and representatives of social service organizations. "The conception is, people who are poor don't work, and that if you just do well and work hard, you can make a good living. We are here to challenge those stereotypes."

The numbers show that a high school diploma -- and even some college -- is no longer enough to guarantee a decent wage, said Bruce Stenslie, assistant director of the Ventura County Human Services Agency.

They also mean that many people in the county have to work two jobs and cram multiple families into one household in order to survive.

According to Californians for Family Economic Self-Sufficiency, a project of a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group, a family of two adults, an infant and a preschooler in Ventura County needs at least $50,100 a year to cover basic needs such as food, housing and child care without government assistance. That translates to an hourly wage of $11.87 for both adults. The state minimum wage is $6.75 an hour and the federal minimum is $5.15 an hour.

The current federal poverty level, on which eligibility for most government programs is based, is $15,000 a year, said Aimee Durfee, a program specialist with the statewide group, who spoke at the seminar. Federal poverty figures don't take into consideration regional differences or varied family types.

"People are working, working, working, and still they can't meet basic costs," Durfee said. "There is a fundamental unfairness there."

The Ventura County study examined several potential solutions, including raising the minimum wage, creating a "living wage" -- a base amount that a local government decides people should be paid -- subsidizing wages and reducing tax liability by establishing a low income tax credit in California.

But the report's authors concluded that job training and education -- combined with support such as child-care subsidies and health-care programs -- are most likely to result in significant and lasting change for the low-wage worker.

They advocate partnerships between public agencies and businesses that will enable workers to get extra training that will move them into better, higher-paying jobs.

In most cases, the study found, workers already struggling to make ends meet cannot afford to take time out for classes.

Consider Oxnard resident Jacqueline Frieling.

The 28-year-old certified nurse's assistant has been working at Community Memorial Hospital in Ventura for more than six years, earning $7.25 to $10 an hour.

Throughout that time, she has also taken classes at Ventura College, working slowly toward a degree in nursing. As the daughter in a single-parent family, her income helps support her mother, who is disabled. At the end of the month, she has very little money left for necessities such as gas, and rarely can save anything, Frieling said.

"Sometimes it got really frustrating, working all day and then trying to understand microbiology at 9 p.m.," Frieling said. "I was really discouraged and was going to give up on the whole nursing thing."

But now Frieling is taking part in a program sponsored by the hospital, the Workforce Investment Board and the Simi Valley Adult School, which is providing free training twice a week to her and 19 other employees at their workplace.

At the end of the 12-week program, for which the employees are paid, they can apply to become licensed certified nurses, increasing their hourly pay to $16 by agreeing to stay on at least two years.

"It will change my life dramatically," Frieling said. "I will be able to help out more at home." The $6 pay increase would make "a huge difference."

Frieling said she is extremely grateful for the opportunity the program is providing her. "I never would have dreamt of this miracle," she said. In many ways, Ventura County's economy is bustling, outpacing the state and the nation in terms of worker pay and job availability.

But the report shows that the county still has a long way to go in bridging the gap between the haves and the have-nots, said Penny Boehm, chairwoman of the Workforce Investment Board.

There are many reasons for the gap, including a lack of affordable housing and transportation -- but the board's focus is on developing a more skilled workforce and encouraging businesses to create more high-paying jobs.

"We're doing some great things, but we need to do a lot more," Boehm said. "And to do that, we need the involvement of the entire community."

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