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Laboring harder, slipping behind

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Every day is Labor Day for Ruben Rangel.

The 48-year-old Compton resident works most days from 1:30 to 9:30 p.m. as a baggage handler at Los Angeles International Airport. Then he changes clothes and pulls a shift as janitor at a Ralphs from midnight to 9 a.m.

Rangel, a single father, works about 80 hours a week to provide for his five kids, ages 8 to 20. His jobs pay a combined $45,000 and provide health coverage for the family.

"Every year it's harder," Rangel told me. "I'm getting older and it's becoming more and more difficult to work two jobs."

Times are tough. Food costs are up, fuel costs are up. It's hard paying the rent or mortgage. A major medical problem can wipe you out.

The Census Bureau reported last week that the median household income rose 1.3% to $50,233 in 2007, while the poverty rate was unchanged at 12.5%. But that was before the U.S. economy took some of its roughest blows.

Inflation averaged 2.8% last year. It's now running at an annual rate of 5.6%. Meanwhile, average weekly earnings were down 3.1% last month from a year earlier. Employment has fallen every month this year.

"The typical working family is considerably more squeezed this year than it was last year -- and last year wasn't so great," said Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

Although the median household income rose slightly last year from a year before, a closer look reveals a less encouraging trend.

In the 1989-2000 economic cycle, median household income rose 8.3% in real terms after rising 6.5% over the previous decade. But from 2000 to 2007, income dropped 0.6% despite relatively strong overall economic growth.

Though the poverty rate held steady last year at 12.5%, it has risen from 11.3% since 2000. More than 37 million Americans now live in poverty, and the number of children living in poverty increased 4% last year to 13.3 million.

The federal government defines poverty as an annual income of $10,400 for individuals and $21,200 for a family of four. In California, a full-time minimum-wage worker makes just $16,640.

The one bright spot in last week's census figures was a drop in the number of people lacking health insurance, down in 2007 to 45.7 million from 47 million in 2006.

But that's not a reflection of more people being covered by employer-based insurance plans or other private-sector policies. Census officials say there are fewer uninsured because more people are now covered by taxpayer-funded insurance plans such as the State Children's Health

Insurance Program and Medi-Cal.

The share of Americans with employer-based coverage fell last year for the seventh year in a row, to 59.3% from 59.7%.

Sharlette Villacorta, 36, works 40 hours a week behind the deli counter of an Albertsons market in Los Feliz. It's a good job, she said, paying $15 an hour, and helps her provide for her four boys, ages 4 to 10.

But it's harder every year to get by.

"It's really difficult juggling the bills, the mortgage, buying groceries," Villacorta said.

Her husband works as a technician for Time Warner Cable, but they rely on her job for the family's health insurance.

"I've held my job for 15 years," Villacorta said, "but it's not secure. Every time the contract comes around, I get scared."

According to census figures, 14.7% of L.A. County residents lived below the poverty line last year, down from 15.4% a year before. The rate has declined since hitting about 18% in 2000 but remains above the statewide average of 12.4%.

More than 1 in 5 L.A. kids were living in poverty in 2007.

I spoke with Rangel as he spent a little time at home between jobs. He'd just gotten up after a couple of hours of sleep. It's rare for him to get more than three or four hours each day.

He'd joined other airline service workers in walking off the job Thursday to demand higher wages and more affordable healthcare. But Rangel returned to work Friday after Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa brokered a three-week truce among labor negotiators.

Aside from mornings and his occasional days off, Rangel said, his 17-year-old son looks after the family.

"I'll do this for as long as I can," he said. "I want my kids to have more. I want them to go to college. I don't want them to work like me."

That's a Labor Day sentiment many Americans can relate to.

Hold the phone

Wednesday's column about a $2,367.40 "data service roaming charge" being tacked on to a Santa Monica family's T-Mobile bill prompted outrage among readers. It also got the company's attention.

Thierry Foucaut had repeatedly asked T-Mobile to prove that nearly 158 megabytes of data -- the equivalent of about 80 novels -- were downloaded to his wife's

BlackBerry during a brief stopover in Canada while flying last month from Los Angeles to Paris.

The company insisted that the charge was valid but never produced any documentation to support its claim.

On Thursday, Foucaut said he received a call from the office of T-Mobile Chief Executive Robert Dotson informing him that the roaming charge was being dropped. No reason was given.

"I still feel like I was not listened to by the company," Foucaut told me. "But if they want to give me a credit for the roaming charge, I will gladly take it."

Consumer Confidential runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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