In a nutshell, The Times has found that behind the upward march of most economic averages are increasingly frequent instances of financial setback and hardship for a large swath of the population. Even those in the top-10% bracket — making well over $100,000 a year — have seen their incomes grow more volatile and therefore prone to steep dives.
"The only way to improve your life if you're poor is to be very prudent and make very, very few mistakes like getting fired or splurging and ending up with a lot of debt," said Christopher Jencks, a Harvard University authority on poverty. "Most people aren't that prudent."
Finding a Foothold
Elvira Rojas headed for the U.S. at age 21 in search of two things that were in short supply in her native El Salvador: peace and prosperity.
Combatants in that country's bloody civil war engaged in firefights outside her family's home in Acajutla, and Maldanado had received death threats because of his role as a former military man. In addition, Rojas discovered that the only job she could get with her high school diploma from El Instituto Nacional was at the local fish-packing plant.
The pair arrived in L.A. in May 1989. She quickly found work cleaning houses with two of Maldanado's aunts. He landed a job at a Hawthorne dry-cleaning plant. Between them, they made about $200 a week.
But with the average rent on a one-bedroom apartment in the city then running about $600, they could not afford a first foothold in their new country — a place of their own to live.
"I felt bad in the beginning because I had nothing," Rojas said. "I wanted to go home."
With nowhere else to turn, they moved in with one of Maldanado's aunts, her five children and four cousins in a two-bedroom house on Firmona Avenue in Hawthorne. They slept on the kitchen floor.
As the couple began to make more money, they moved into a succession of other apartments. Each was a little larger than the last but still crammed with relatives.
Rojas and Maldanado had few alternatives. During their first years, they were effectively excluded from federal rent subsidies or state help because they were illegal immigrants.
In 1991, the two gained legal status under a program that allowed people fleeing war in their homelands to be counted as refugees. But their new standing was thrown into question in 1994, when California voters approved Proposition 187. The initiative was designed to cut off state assistance to undocumented immigrants, but many legal ones interpreted the measure as a blanket ban aimed at them too.
Rojas, for one, took no chances; she never applied for housing assistance — or almost any other kind of aid — although it appears from her Social Security records and tax returns that she would have qualified. "I didn't want to be a burden on the government," she explained.
It's probably just as well. By the mid-1990s, the state and federal governments were winding down most of a six-decade-long drive to help poor families meet their housing needs. That effort had begun under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who decried the conditions gripping America. "I see one-third of a nation ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished," he said in 1937.
In the years that followed, a booming private sector largely solved the food and clothing problems. And a combination of financial market innovations and federal power applied through a battery of agencies — the Veterans Administration, the Federal Housing Administration, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac — greatly expanded home ownership, especially among the middle class. But that still left what to do for poor families, most of whom could afford only to rent.
Washington's first answer was to have the government build and run housing projects. Some worked. But many degenerated into vertical ghettos, victimized by disastrous design, racial and economic segregation, drugs and crime.
In 1974, President Nixon and Congress turned to another solution: the Section 8 program. Instead of putting up buildings itself, the government would subsidize private developers to construct housing and give poor families vouchers to rent apartments in the open market. But developer subsidies produced cost overruns and political scandals in the 1980s and were largely phased out.