Youths confront parents' financial woes in painful ways

Talk around the dinner table at Osvaldo Reza's home in South Los Angeles usually revolves around his mother's excellent homemade salsas. But this evening, between bites of chicken taquitos and salad, the discussion turned to his father, a truck driver whose company recently cut his hours because of the bad economy.

After car and house payments, there's no money left, Carlos Reza said. His wife, Maria, recently started working as a house cleaner to help cover the cost of school books and plane tickets for their oldest child, Cynthia, whose visits home from her East Coast college have been curtailed because of the family's tightened finances.

A son, Stan, a recent Manual Arts High School graduate, is working this summer to help pay his tuition at Cal Poly Pomona.

And the youngest, Mabil, a cheerful 13-year-old, said she understands that money woes may prevent the family from giving her a fancy quinceanera like the one for Cynthia a few years back.

With the country grappling with one of the worst economic crises in decades, members of its youngest generation are confronting their families' reduced means in new and sometimes painful ways.

The recession is probably the most unsettling event many youths have faced, aside from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The economy is forcing frank discussions as families try to cope with job losses and dwindling savings and retirement accounts.

Osvaldo -- Ozzie -- will be a junior this fall at Manual Arts' Academy of Finance, where lessons about the nation's economic meltdown are part of the curriculum.

But even outside their classes, he and other students are already learning adult lessons about sacrifice and thrift. Pricey games and electronic gadgets are no longer a priority.

"Students like us are the future," said Ozzie, 16, a lanky teen who loves volleyball and swimming. "It makes you think, is it going to be this bad when I'm a little older? Are we going to be in a depression by then?"

To help his family, he has applied for jobs at Kmart and Jamba Juice, among others. So far, he said, no one's hiring. He is attending summer school to help boost his GPA and attract scholarships to attend college -- preferably an Ivy League campus.

A recent English assignment about the responsibilities of having a child took on resonance when his father spoke about Cynthia, 21, who is home for the summer. Carlos Reza said he wasn't thrilled when she moved to Lewisburg, Pa., to attend Bucknell University. Now, with less income, he worries about how the family could get to her if she became sick or needed help.

The Rezas used to visit family in Mexico at least three times a year. Now they've cut down on those trips, and some family members stay behind. At school, Ozzie gets compliments for his fashionable clothes; the reality, he said, is that his dad has become skilled at finding sales.

The Rezas are trying to plan for Cynthia's graduation next year; they estimate it will cost at least $500 for each family member to make the trip. They're not sure how they'll do it.

When Cynthia graduated from high school, her parents gave her a laptop. Her siblings may not receive such gifts. Mabil, who will be a freshman at Manual Arts, is already thinking ahead, planning beyond high school.

"Right now, I'm in a lot of sports in school like volleyball and softball, and I've been talking to the counselors who deal with that about possible scholarships," she said.

Stan also tries to do his part. Before it folded, he worked at Circuit City. "I got a job to help Dad, to help cover expenses," said the 18-year-old, who wants to study mechanical engineering. "I have friends who'll go, 'Let's go out' or something, and I have to say, 'No, I don't have any money.' "

He's still awaiting word on scholarships or financial aid, and he said he may have to take out a loan or find a job. He's working this summer as a handyman at a student apartment complex near USC to help pay for college expenses.

Ozzie spends many after-school hours volunteering with L.A.'s Best, an after-school enrichment program. He works mostly at 68th Street Elementary School, helping his former fourth-grade teacher assist children who are hearing-impaired.

He wants to major in government or English and perhaps pursue a law degree. His goals are lofty: He wouldn't mind being president and initiating policies that would prevent the kind of financial hardship afflicting families like his.

In February, he was among a group of Academy of Finance students who visited the private Brentwood School to make a presentation about the recession. The Manual Arts students were surprised at how they connected with the Brentwood students, many of whom come from families with far greater means.

Still, Ozzie said, "I think the students from Manual Arts have a lot more challenges. For some, their parents don't support them. For others, high school is not even an option; their parents tell them, 'You're coming to work with me.' "

As the recession continues, experts say there probably will be a heavy emotional toll on young people worried about the future and their families' well-being.

Students increasingly express concerns about their financial situation and find it hard to get a job as they compete with out-of-work adults. The employment rate for 16-to-19-year-olds last summer was 32.6%, the lowest in 60 years, and was expected to be no better this year, according to the Center for Labor Market Studies at Northeastern University.

"In the last downturn, following Sept. 11, we found parents would go out of their way to shelter teens, to give up things that they wanted so they wouldn't have to tell teens no," said Rob Callender, trends director at TRU, a youth-oriented market research firm. "Those days are gone. Everybody is being forced to do without, everybody is sharing the burden."

Despite the family's financial struggles, Carlos Reza remains committed to helping his children get a good education.

"The recession doesn't allow him to save any money," said Cynthia, who just finished a summer student teaching job at Manual Arts. "But he always tells me, even if he has to go into debt, he'll get all of us into schools."

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carla rivera@latimes.com

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