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California Struggles to Close Residents' Income Gap

The cost of living in U.S. cities like Los Angeles is rising, and low-income residents are struggling to meet their expenses. Community organizations are looking to government and business to close the gap.

Diana Pearce of the University of Washington says a family with two adults and two young children living in Los Angeles needs more than $50,000 a year to live a no-frills life. She says that does not include dinners at fast food restaurants, even a take-home pizza. The figure assumes that both adults work, and it includes expenses like day care. The $50,000 income is three times the poverty limit established by federal officials.

Government assistance for food and housing helps those at the bottom of the wage scale, but people above the poverty line get little assistance. Outlining results of her own study, Ms. Pearce estimates that three out of 10 households in California fall below a level she calls the "self-sufficiency standard."

"In fact, they average about three-fourths of that standard in terms of their income," she said. "And that means that these families are really struggling to make ends meet."

She says families must often decide whether to pay their rent or their utility bills.

Marjorie Sims of the California Women's Law Center says many turn to charities like soup kitchens and food pantries. She spoke at Los Angeles city hall, where the study was unveiled, and notes such charities are active in the downtown neighborhood.

"About three blocks from here, you will see hundreds of women with children and men and young people lining up to get food," she said. "These are people that are very poor living in L.A., not far from this building."

Most of those people are indigent, but food pantries in other neighborhoods serve some who work at low-wage jobs, and turn to charity to stretch their budgets.

Jimena Vasquez of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund says many Hispanic residents in this city of immigrants are stretched to the limit.

"It's a question of juggling, and it's also day by day," she said. "People get really creative in how they get by."

The newly released study, sponsored by a number of community organizations, shows that more than half of the Hispanic families living in California fall under the standard. Their biggest expense is housing, and Ms. Vasquez says some reduce that cost by living together.

"It's grandmothers, brothers, sister, uncles a lot of shared housing. And a lot of what we do is barter our services," she said. "We'll trade -'I'll cook and you watch the kids, or I'll clean and you drive me to work.'"

Those living in the country illegally are stretched even thinner because they are barred from many public services, such as free medical care at county hospitals, except for emergencies.

"So for them, it's even harder to make ends meet, and they come up with different creative ways of doing it, selling flowers and oranges on the street corners, have second jobs, and do all sorts of things to get by," she said.

Los Angeles officials say they are helping to close the gap between income and expenses by promoting affordable housing. They are also encouraging higher wages by requiring businesses that contract with the city to pay their employees a so-called "living wage," which is higher by several dollars an hour than the legal minimum.

The officials say they are setting an example, but they admit that the policy is symbolic, affecting few workers, and failing to close the gap even for those it applies to.

The community groups that sponsored the new study say officials should try to attract more skilled jobs to Los Angeles, and invest in education, to let workers improve their skills and raise their incomes. They concede that is difficult at a time when the economy is slow, education is under-funded, and the California government is facing a fiscal crisis.