Sunday, April 22, 2007

"Two Americas" in San Mateo County

Wanda Nalls (left), executive director of the Daly City Community Services Center, chats with Madelyn Martin, director of Community Prevention & Early Intervention for the San Mateo County Human Services Agency.

At a recent community forum in South San Francisco, workers for the big food service contractor Guckenheimer which runs cafeterias for companies like Genentech testified about low pay, backbreaking hours and arbitrary working conditions. They are demanding a protective code of conduct from their employer.

According to the 2000 census, San Mateo County is second richest county in the state -- and the 14th richest county in the country! Located between San Francisco and San Jose, it is home to the bedroom "country" estates of wealthy escapees from the nearby urban areas, such as the towns of Atherton, Hillsborough, Portola Valley, and Woodside.

In 2003, again according to the Census Bureau, median household income was $64,998. Sounds great -- but the aggregate figures conceal extraordinary disparities between the two ends of the affluence spectrum. Put simply, less and less San Mateo residents actually live anywhere near the median. As Madelyn Martin of the county Human Services Agency explained:

...the middle class is disappearing. Those in the "haves" and "have nots" categories have been increasing.

...Out of 72,570 new jobs created in 2006, 87 percent paid less than $27,997.

The federal poverty level for a family of 3 is $16,600. In 2006, it required $66,442 for a single mother and two children to be self-sufficient in San Mateo County.

The statistically inclined will notice that what it costs to live decently here, according to the county itself, is more than the median income! A quick look inside the job statistics tells why most of the new ones pay less than $28,000. A little over 9000 of those jobs were for nurses or managers; all the rest were in such categories as retail sales, cashiers, wait-staff, food service, office clerks or security guards.

Wanda Nalls of Daly City gave this data a human dimension. Daly City is the quintessential post-World War II suburb, tract housing thrown up to meet demand from young families, originally sold with 30-year mortgages for prices of less than $10,000. The sprawling hillsides of cookie cutter houses built by Henry Doelger inspired Malvina Reynolds' classic song, "Little Boxes on the Hillside." They came with a palm tree in the yard, one bathroom, and at most 3 bedrooms.

Ms. Nalls told the forum:

It took a fire for us to understand what was going on in our city. Seventeen people, three families, were living in a single burned out house. People are now living one family to a bedroom in these houses.

Do we just accept that we are moving rapidly toward a society based on this kind of life for most -- or do we do something about it?

No endorsement of John Edwards implied here, but his campaign slogan certainly is apt.

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