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Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Poor Californians hurt by budget cuts

Marketplace Staff Jun 24, 2009
Fallout: The Financial Crisis

Poor Californians hurt by budget cuts

Marketplace Staff Jun 24, 2009


Kai Ryssdal: Up in Sacramento, Calif., today the Golden State’s financial mess is playing out the same way it has for months now. Which is to say there is a whole lot of nothin’ going on. Lawmakers are trying to close a $24 billion hole in the budget, and they have been unable to agree on almost any of the solutions that’ve been proposed — tax increases or spending cuts.

Some of the biggest cuts are aimed at public schools. In Los Angeles thousands of teachers are being laid off. Programs are being canceled right and left, and that whole thing is leaving some Californians hungry for more than just education. From KQED, Rob Schmitz reports.

ROB SCHMITZ: Talk to anyone here at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary about Ms. Byrd, most would agree that she is a cookie, of the one tough variety.

Ms. BYRD: Do you want to go to the office today? I’m not going to have your foolishness this morning, do you understand me?

This teacher’s aide runs a tight lunchroom. In fact, this single lunchroom says a lot about what’s happening in California. Earlier this month, Los Angeles Unified School District canceled summer school to deal with the loss in state revenue.

Here at MLK, summer school is more than just remedial classes. Every one of the 730 students at this school qualifies for the free lunch program. Many of these students only come to summer school so they can continue eating free meals. Ms. Byrd relies on these meals, too, to help feed her daughter and niece, who live with her at her home down the street.

BYRD: Stop it Hot Dog! This is Hot Dog, this is my daughter’s dog. More like a fat sausage.

Here, inside the gate of Byrd’s tiny pink house, Ms. Byrd becomes Jacqueline Byrd: an exhausted 50 year-old mother and aunt, worried about how she’s going to feed her family.

BYRD: On my level it means going to the food banks. Asking your relatives for financial assistance.

Byrd’s brother and sisters are pitching in to send the girls to summer school. The school’s run by the L.A. Roman Catholic Archdiocese, which quickly stepped in to fill L.A.’s summer school gap. The girls’ tuition comes to $800, that’s what Byrd makes in a month, or what she did make. Last week, the district cut the literacy program she’s worked for, making her the latest victim of the state’s budget crisis.

BYRD: The bulk of my job is no longer there. I will only be working officially one hour each day as a school supervision aide, and then the rest of my time will be donated.

Before her hours were cut, Byrd’s salary, combined with her husband’s social security, put her family just above the poverty line. Now they’re below it. At least now, she says, they qualify for food stamps.

RAMON CORTINES: We’re in an unraveling time from of what we’ve become accustomed to.

Ramon Cortines is superintendent of L.A. Unified Schools. For the past month, he’s been in charge of making hundreds of millions of dollars worth of deeply painful cuts, laying off thousands of staff and teachers, cutting summer school, slashing programs that have never been cut before. Cortines is a man who’s run out of options.

CORTINES: I looked at everything in the budget. There isn’t an office that isn’t touched. There isn’t a program I haven’t looked at, and I’ve gone back the second time.

Back at Jacqueline Byrd’s home, her daughter washes dishes as Byrd weighs her own options. She would like to start her own catering or tutoring business; she has experience doing both. But she admits in this economy, neither is likely to take off. Everyone she knows in this neighborhood is losing work.

BYRD: All it takes is one thing to happen: one part-time job. One full-time job to be cut from five days a week to four days a week. That’s all it takes.

That’s all it may take for Jacqueline Byrd. Byrd says she’s thinking of joining family in Louisiana and leaving California for good.

In Los Angeles, I’m Rob Schmitz, for Marketplace.

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