When the first of the couple's two daughters was born the following year, Rojas was so eager for her to be part of the fabric of America that she resisted entreaties to name her Maria after five of Maldanado's aunts, and instead gave her the name Katherine. She would make a similar choice when their second child was born last May, rejecting Maldanado's suggestion of Elvira in favor of Melane.
Meanwhile, any thought of returning to Central America faded away. "Here," said Rojas, "my family will go a lot farther than in El Salvador."
In the summer of 2000, the Wyndham's owners announced that they were closing the hotel for renovations. Rojas remembers hearing ominous rumblings that more would change than the color of the lobby — something about the parking attendants' jobs being contracted out.
But she was not worried. To tide her over during the shutdown, Local 814 had steered her to a job at a unionized Burger King at LAX. The fast-food outlet offered a wage-and-benefit package almost as good as what she was making at the Wyndham.
About a year after it had closed, the hotel on Century Boulevard reopened. Only now, the sign outside read "Radisson." The Wyndham name wasn't the only thing that was gone either. So too was the union — part of a broader trend sweeping corporate America for more than two decades. Unions, which represented 17% of the nation's private-sector workforce in the early 1980s, counted only 8% as members by last year.
Rojas could have her dishwashing job back. But instead of $8.89 an hour, her top wage at the Wyndham, she said, she'd be pulling down only $7.50 at the Radisson, with no employer-paid family health insurance. She signed on anyway and, to make ends meet, kept her job at Burger King as well.
It was hard running between two jobs again, but the family's income finally seemed to be stabilizing. As it turned out, their financial roller-coaster ride had only just begun.
For the poor, the most dramatic of all the safety-net cuts that the government has engineered in the last 25 years came in 1996.
That's when a Republican-controlled Congress passed and President Clinton signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, overhauling the nation's cash welfare system.
The law sought to push people off the dole and into work. In doing so, it essentially reversed the poverty-fighting strategy that Washington had pursued since the 1960s in which poor Americans were promised a certain minimal standard of living. By last year, the law had reduced the nation's welfare rolls by 3 million families, or one-half, and had sliced inflation- adjusted welfare spending by about $10 billion, or one-third.
These numbers, though, are about all the experts can agree on. Advocates have hailed the measure as a spectacular success, saying it has increased the incomes of many poor people while triggering a steep drop in poverty among black children. Critics have denounced it as a failure, saying that many people are poorer today than they were before the law was changed.
For its part, Grimes' household has remained largely unaffected by the law's "work first" requirements. That's because California has maintained relatively generous benefits and because Grimes' domestic partner, Jacqueline Harvey, has a chronic intestinal disease and is exempt from work requirements. She has thus continued to collect benefits off and on from the state's cash welfare program, CalWORKs. She now receives $583 a month.
But Grimes, in the meantime, has been staggered by another, lesser-known element of the 1996 act — a significant toughening of child-support enforcement rules. This part of the law built on other efforts undertaken since the 1970s to go after absentee parents and compel them to help finance their kids' upbringings.
Grimes and Harvey's son, Albert Jr., was born in 1988. Nine years later, when the elder Grimes applied for custody of a nephew, the Los Angeles County district attorney's office sued him for child support for Albert Jr. The D.A. took action even though Grimes, Harvey and their son had always lived together and, they and several relatives say, Grimes always helped raise the boy.
Nonetheless, Grimes declined to challenge the county, which won a court judgment against him. Grimes said he thought that he had to go along with the support order to obtain custody of his nephew and to ensure that Harvey would continue receiving publicly funded healthcare. It's also unclear whether counting Grimes as a parent in the house would have jeopardized the size of Harvey's welfare checks.
Whether a mix-up or not, the effect on Grimes' finances has been devastating. California courts not only have imposed high monthly support payments — often unrelated to a parent's ability to comply — but also have added interest at a 10% annual clip to past-due amounts.