This is your American Dream

The country is on the road to economic recovery—but thousands of formerly middle-class Sacramentans have been left behind

Nyla Vai Vai, 45, lost her job and then her son. Now she advises students on financial aid at Sacramento City College and says she hopes to eventually complete her own college degree. “You have to be optimistic,” she says. “Or else, you’ll eventually lose it.”

Nyla Vai Vai, 45, lost her job and then her son. Now she advises students on financial aid at Sacramento City College and says she hopes to eventually complete her own college degree. “You have to be optimistic,” she says. “Or else, you’ll eventually lose it.”

photo by steven chea

Nyla Vai Vai sits behind the front desk of the CalWORKs office at Sacramento City College and fields questions from students looking for help in accessing financial aid. She is 45 years old, but looks much younger, in blue jeans, sneakers, a turquoise blouse and glasses, her thick, long, dark hair cascading over her shoulders.

Nyla has been through a litany of horrors in recent years, beginning with the loss of her job at the Oak Park Community Center and the collapse of her income, down from nearly $2,800 a month in take-home pay to about $500—not even close to enough to cover her $900 a month rent.

Then, last autumn, her 19-year-old son committed suicide. She has a green tattoo of his name, Tommy, etched into her left forearm.

Somehow, Nyla, who has three more children, presents a buoyant persona. She says that she enjoys working with the students, though would like to be paid a decent salary, and her own studies are going well. She hopes to graduate from the college with an associate degree in community studies and health by the fall of 2014, and then enroll at a University of California campus.

“You have to be optimistic,” she explains, “otherwise, you'll seriously lose it. I lost my son last semester; I had to drop out. Just one semester. I came back in February. I could have stayed home and wailed in my bed, but that wasn't doing anything for me. The kids needed to eat, and bills needed to be paid.”

Nyla is one of Sacramento's forgotten ones: people who hit the skids as the economic recession worsened and who have been unable to rise back up the economic ladder as the broader economy has started to recover.

The stock market has risen significantly over the past couple years. And, in California, the state budget finally has stopped being the nation's laughing stock. But that doesn't mean all's well for people like Nyla.

In fact, dig below the headlines, and one quickly encounters a stubborn well of long-term unemployment, poverty, hunger and general economic vulnerability in Sacramento and throughout the state.

California unemployment numbers are still well above the national average, with 9 percent of the workforce out of work, and one in five children living below the official poverty line. This means that since the most populous coastal areas are doing well, the less densely populated inland counties must be doing awfully. There's simply no other way to square the data.

And while Sacramento's unemployment rate is now down to 8.8 percent, its poorer neighborhoods boast some of the highest poverty rates in the nation.

In south Sacramento, more than 36 percent of families with kids live below the poverty line. According to Zip Atlas, three city ZIP codes—95824, 95832 and 95814—all have unemployment rates of above 12.5 percent. A fourth, 95815, has an 11.5 percent rate.

Poverty continues to trap not only those who have long been poor, but also the newer poor, the people left downwardly mobile by years of recession.

Starting over

In 1996, Nyla, her then-husband and their kids visited Sacramento on the way to Lake Tahoe. Later, they looked at a real-estate brochure that was lying around the Denny's where they were eating lunch and realized how much cheaper housing was here. The family decided to move from the Bay Area to Sacramento.

“We were floored. And three months later, we were in Sacramento. The grand idea of being homeowners and having a driveway and a front yard and a backyard.”

Her ebullient personality served her well, and she quickly found her feet in Sacramento's job market. Nyla's first job in town was for the city, working at the after-school program at the Susan B. Anthony Elementary School on Detroit Boulevard. Over the course of 14 years, she worked a string of city jobs. For a while, until she and her husband split, she lived the American Dream, owning a home, earning more than enough to survive. Even after the divorce and after she moved back into a rental apartment, things still looked up.

But as government cuts deepened in the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, Nyla's hours were reduced from 40 per week to 10, and her benefits were canceled, as she was reduced to part-time status.

Doing whatever they could to make ends meet, Nyla's family began frequenting food banks, and with their income heading south toward the poverty line, they managed to enroll in the CalFresh program, California's version of food stamps. They got $400 a month in food assistance—until Tommy turned 18, at which point the family's food stamps were reduced to about $300.

“I had to pull my retirement,” she says. “I couldn't get on welfare till my retirement was spent up. I couldn't have more than $1,000 in my account.”

She also couldn't get on cash assistance, or on Medi-Cal, while working part time. So, eventually in 2010, she had to forfeit her 10 hours a week of work; it made no sense to continue on in that situation.

Destitute and on welfare, Nyla began an endless round of job searches. But everywhere she went, she ran into the same problem: She had built up a successful career for herself without a college education; now, when she applied for the sorts of jobs that she had previously held, employers wanted to see evidence that she had a degree.

And so, finally, in the fall of 2011, Nyla enrolled at Sac City College, and began working part time in the CalWORKs office there as a student-services adviser, so as to remain eligible for cash assistance.

“I was pissed, having to start over,” she remembers. But, she quickly adds, flashing a smile, she likes her interactions with the students. “It's a field I love doing, helping out the community.”

Of course, it wouldn't go amiss if she earned more, about three or four times more by her calculations; after all, currently, for her 25 hours a week of work, Nyla brings in about $700 a month.

Her story speaks to a larger problem. Post-recessionary California has, essentially, become two entirely distinct economies.

Tale of two Californias

California's coastal cities, and in particular its technology hubs, have been enjoying something of a spectacular recovery recently, with their real estate booming again, and their unemployment numbers lower than the national average, which has been hovering at about 7.5 percent in recent months.

In San Francisco-Oakland-Fremont area, the unemployment rate was down to 6.2 percent in April, according to the most recent data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In the San Diego area, it's 7 percent. In San Jose, 6.6 percent. Los Angeles' unemployment rate is still high—roughly comparable to Sacramento's at 8.4 percent—but in the megalopolis, the trends are heading in the right direction. The metro area added more than 103,000 jobs in the 12 months leading up to April. Meanwhile, from April 2012 to April 2013, Napa County registered an astounding 6 percent increase in its employment rate.

Yet all is not well in California as a whole, with inland areas falling ever further behind economically.

“There's the increasing gap in wages,” says California Budget Project executive director Chris Hoene. “But there's factors beyond that that have to do with divergent skill sets. You're really getting two Californias. There's Silicon Valley, technology around the entertainment industry in Southern California—high-skill, high-wages jobs. And, at the other level, lower and middle skills. California's not developing a lot of jobs for those individuals.”

In Sacramento, for example, some major employers continue to shed jobs. Over the spring, Campbell Soup Company phased out employment at its south Sacramento plant, leading to more than 700 workers losing their jobs. Data from the Center for Strategic Economic Research shows that the Sacramento region lost several thousand construction and information jobs in the past year as well.

And despite the rebound of central-city housing prices, the suburbs are still hurting—and the construction industry in those burbs is still coming off of the lows it hit during the dog days of the bust.

Government agencies, too—traditionally a major source of employment in the region and a backstop during times of economic malaise—continue to struggle with years of state and federal cuts.

In April, Sam Stein and Amanda Terkel reported in The Huffington Post that because of the federal sequestration cuts, “The Sacramento Housing and Redevelopment Agency is preparing to lose $13.9 million in funds that it uses to help poor families pay rent.” Other services at risk include special-education teacher training. Child-care workers have also suffered disproportionately in the recession and its aftermath.

Sheila Truso, 60, lost her job in 2011. It took more than two years to find new employment—a situation that forced her to live in her car and eventually seek emergency shelter. Now she works an hourly job with no benefits.

Photo By steven chea

“It really hit the folks in the inland areas quite hard,” Hoene says of the cascading job losses triggered by the bust. “There isn't a lot in the middle in these regions.”

By some measures, taking into account the state's higher cost of living, California now has a higher poverty rate than any other state in the country.

Disproportionately, that poverty is concentrated in immigrant communities and in inland cities and counties.

The endless job hunt

Employment counselors at organizations such as Sacramento Works and the Area 4 Agency on Aging have found that the recession has left its mark particularly on middle-aged professionals, men and women in their 40s, 50s and 60s who had jobs, lost them, used up their savings, drained their retirement accounts, and have struggled to get employment that provides anywhere near the income that they are used to and that their financial commitments—mortgages, kids' college education and so on—necessitate.

Sometimes, the initial job loss was directly related to the recession. Other times, as with south Sacramento resident Sheila Truso, who lost her job working for a nonprofit company in 2011 that liaised with low-income PG&E clients to link them up with weatherization programs for their homes, it wasn't recession-related. But the broader economic unease and the huge numbers of people competing for scarce jobs made it that much harder for her to then find new employment.

“I have been looking for work nonstop since I lost my job,” says Truso, 60. “I went back to school to be recertified as a forklift operator, and I still couldn't find work. I was either overqualified or underqualified and never in the middle. It's the longest I've ever been out of work.

“Many nights, I'd just cry. At this time in my life, I should be retired and not having to go out and find work in order to survive. It really hurts.”

Sacramento Works career-center staff estimate that for any one job, there are now 50 to 100 applicants. Oftentimes, employers now do what are called “cattle-call interviews,” in which dozens of potential employees are brought in for a few minutes of questions one after the other after the other.

It's almost like speed dating, but with people's livelihoods on the line.

The longer a person is out of work, the more the deck is stacked against them in these settings. “They're treated like they haven't done anything in their life, like their work ethic is gone. Sticking to a company for 20 to 30 years means nothing,” says Beth Doran, who counsels clients at the large, brown brick Sacramento Works office on Old Placerville Road, one of 11 such centers dotted throughout the county.

Doran doesn't mince words with her clients. Some of the people she's helped, in particular out-of-work truckers, have found new jobs quickly. But for others, such as licensed vocational nurses, medical assistants and construction workers, she and her colleagues have found the job pickings are slim.

“It might take six more months out of training to get their foot in the door, and that's diligently looking,” Doran explains.

Their clients include a former airline mechanic, who has been out of work for more than three years; laid-off middle-aged accountants, who have been told their skills are out-of-date because they got their degrees 20 years ago. They mention men and women in their 50s who are being asked by employers to take internships, as if they were recently graduated 20-somethings.

Some of their clients are told they are underqualified, because they don't have degrees. Others are being informed that they are overqualified, because they do have degrees, and employers fear that if they offer them low-paying entry-level jobs, they will jump ship once the labor market improves. They are, essentially, on the scrap heap.

When Sheila lost her job, she quickly ran through her savings. And after that, she avers, she ended up living off $183.58 a month in back child support paid by the father of her grown daughter. She could afford cereal, bought at local dollar discount stores, but not much more than that. At that time, in her late 50s, she moved in with her daughter.

And, after that, she spent the better part of a year sleeping in the frontseat of her gold, four-door 2004 Hyundai Sonata, her possessions crammed into the backseat and the trunk. She would sleep in Walmart and Denny's parking lots, where, she hoped, the security and 24-seven lighting would provide her some safety. And she'd wash up, as best she could, in their restrooms.

What little money she had “went into my gas tank,” so that she could drive around the region looking for employment. The quest didn't bear fruit. For more than two years, she remained without work.

Finally, in April of this year, Sheila ended up in emergency-housing shelter. In May, she found a job, working, once again, as an hourly employee with no benefits at a nonprofit. She is living now in a subsidized south Sacramento apartment owned by the shelter.

In some ways, she has come full circle. But Sheila is still a long way from being where she was before the recession: Her savings are gone, her prospects for retirement, too. And she anticipates having to work for many, many years to come.

“I deal with people from blue collar all the way up to attorneys, CEOs, Ph.D.s,” says JoAnne Mahaney-Buehler, a program manager at the Area 4 Agency on Aging. She's been counseling upward of 300 clients a year since the recession began; Sheila is one of them.

“It's amazing. This recession has touched everyone. A lot of the professionals I meet here say, ‘I never thought I'd be here.' Their mindset is so negative,” she explains. “I'm the one who says, ‘You can't give up. [If] you give up, what's the alternative?'”

But Mahaney-Buehler says many clients have “lost all their self-esteem, confidence, belief they can get a job.” Like Sheila, these middle-aged men and women have ended up having to live in their grown children's homes.

Mahaney-Buehler tells them which food banks they can go to for free food and helps them research what employers they can approach looking for work.

“They have been hit so hard,” she says. “It's been such an altering experience for them. A lot of them have lost their homes; they're looking at low-income housing to live. Some of these people have just given up.”

Someone's always got it worse

Nyla routinely has to juggle her bills. “I call SMUD. My bill's $120. I phone, say, ‘Can I pay $50?'” With the money that's left, she buys clothing for her youngest daughters, who still live with her. “It's a tap dance. I need that extra money. I buy toilet paper to last a month—I shop a lot at the dollar store.”

She used to take her kids to restaurants on payday; now, she never goes out to eat. She used to go on driving expeditions to corners of the state she was unfamiliar with, just to educate herself; now, the idea of burning gas needlessly fills her with horror.

Knowing that she'll be nearly 50 by the time she gets her degree, the onetime community-center employee wants nothing more than to find a decent-paying job working with Sacramentans once again.

“I got all this damn experience. I've got great references,” she says.

For Nyla, for Sheila, for the clients at Sacramento Works and Area 4 Agency on Aging, the much-touted economic turnaround isn't all that it's cracked up to be.

“You watch it with bated breath,” explains Caroline Bevan of Sacramento Works. “Is it really true? And you wait for the jobs to appear. When they say the jobs are coming back, it's not the jobs that were there before. Lower pay. But they are getting jobs. They are.”

She stops, then shrugs. Her colleague, Doran, jumps in:

“You're going to do a lot more on the job for a lot less. And either you take it, or you leave it.”

Nyla has decided that she won't be broken—neither by unemployment nor by the personal tragedies that have crashed against her family in recent years. “You make the best of it,” she argues. “You don't want to drown.

“I tell my kids, ‘Someone's always got it worse.'”