"They are a different kind of people," he declared. "They think and feel differently; they look upon a different America than the middle class."
The 36-year-old Salvadoran-born dishwasher and her partner, warehouse worker Jose Maldanado, make barely enough to stay above the official poverty line — $18,810 last year for a family of four. But by working two, sometimes three, jobs between them, they are grabbing at middle-class dreams.
Rojas and Maldanado live in a two-room apartment in Hawthorne but have china settings for 16 tucked in a wooden hutch. Their two young daughters receive health coverage through Medi-Cal but get many of their clothes at Robinsons-May.
The family struggles to meet its monthly bills but has taken on a mountain of credit card debt. They have used plastic to buy a large-screen TV and other luxuries but have also relied on it to cover bare necessities such as rent and emergency-room visits.
"That's why I'm really poor even though I work so hard," Rojas said with a rueful laugh.
Some see circumstances like Rojas' as testament to the economic strides that America has made over the last generation, rather than a reflection of its failures.
"We've won the War on Poverty," asserted Robert Rector, an influential analyst with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "We've basically eliminated widespread material deprivation."
But if deprivation is no longer as big a problem, that hardly means all is well. In many ways, Rojas is the new face of the working poor, suffering not so much from a dearth of possessions as from a cavalcade of chaos — pay cuts and eviction notices, car troubles and medical crises — that rattles her finances and nudges her family toward the economic brink.
In this way, Rojas and millions like her are not — as Harrington described them — fundamentally different from most other Americans; they are remarkably similar.
Indeed, today's working poor are experiencing an extreme version of the economic turbulence that is rocking families across the income spectrum. And the cause, no matter people's means, is the same: a quarter-century-long shift of economic risk by business and government onto working families.
Protections that Americans, especially poor ones, once relied on to buffer them from economic setbacks — affordable housing, stable jobs with good benefits, union membership and the backstop of cash welfare — have shriveled or been eliminated. These losses have been only partially offset by an expansion of programs such as the earned-income tax credit for the working poor and publicly provided healthcare.
For the most part, the poor have been left to cope on their own, scrambling from one fragile employment arrangement to the next, doubling up on housing and borrowing heavily.
"Families up and down the income distribution are bearing more economic risk than they did 25 or 30 years ago," said Johns Hopkins University economist Robert A. Moffitt. "But the increase has been especially dramatic among the working poor."
As a result, their earnings are jumping around like never before.
During the early 1970s, the inflation-adjusted incomes of most families in the bottom fifth of the economy bounced up and down no more than 25% a year. By the beginning of this decade, those annual fluctuations had doubled to as much as 50%, according to statistics generated by the Los Angeles Times in conjunction with Moffitt and researchers at several other major universities.
For a family with an income at the 20th percentile — or roughly $23,000 a year in inflation-adjusted terms — that has meant recent annual swings of as much as $12,000. Twenty-five years ago, those swings tended to be no more than $4,300.
The Times' figures are based on the Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a database funded by the National Science Foundation and run by the University of Michigan. In contrast to most economic indicators, which involve taking random samples of different Americans at different times and comparing the results, the panel study has followed the same 5,000 nationally representative families and their offshoots for nearly 40 years.