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Affording a Life on America's Dime

New America Media, News Report//Video, Words; Kenneth Kim//Video: Min Lee//Photos: Doug Piburn Posted: Sep 22, 2008

Editor's Note: On Sept. 6, the Marguerite Casey Foundation's Equal Voice for America's Families Campaign culminated with as many as 16,000 family delegates attending conventions in three cities, Birmingham, Chicago and Los Angeles. The event, which was simulcast from the host sites, marked the release of a National Family Platform, a document that focused on the issues of importance to low-income families. NAM reporter Kenneth Kim describes the socio-economic reality of families at the Los Angeles gathering in the second of three reports on what may yet become a movement for social justice. Photographs are by Doug Piburn. Min Lee is an editor at YO! Youth Outlook Multimedia.

LOS ANGELES - Like 19th century pioneers who believed in Manifest Destiny, they came by busloads. They marched into the Los Angeles Convention Center, not to stake a claim for a plot of land, but to lay a social groundwork for America's 21st century working families.

More than 5,000 people gathered inside the cavernous facility's South Hall on September 6. Their diversity encompassed languages and occupations. Interpreters were provided in Cambodia's Khmer, Laotian Hmong, Somali, Cantonese, Mandarin, Vietnamese, Korean and Spanish for participants who journeyed from Northern California, Arizona, Washington and New Mexico. Some sew clothes, clean offices and houses, and mow lawns. Some serve fast foods and stack merchandise at grocery markets. Some assemble, in factories, lighting fixtures for new homes. Some package meat products in plants.

Los Angeles Equal Voice Conference Slideshow
Click on image to go to the Equal Voice LA Conference slideshow

Despite their differences, attendees had been quick to see the denominator they share: they are the working poor of America. Their attendance at the Equal Voice for America's Families campaign, an initiative of the Marguerite Casey Foundation, was to ratify a policy agenda that, if implemented, could improve the quality of their day-to-day lives.

Just like other working families in this country, the low-income and working poor embrace the prevailing ethos of America. They work hard to contribute to the country's prosperity and to pursue a happy and better life for their families. To obtain the latter, they often defer their own needs in order to address those of their children.

Yet, they can barely pay their bills. Though employed, they often cannot afford to buy themselves the food they prepare or serve to others. They cannot own one of the cars they wash. They cannot pay the fees to put their own children in the day-care centers where they work. They work in banks, handling daily transactions worth tens of thousands of dollars, but may have less than $14 in their own account - if they have one at all.

VIDEO: Equal Voices Convention Los Angeles, Calif.

An instant poll conducted at the convention showed that their earnings hover in twilight between poverty and barely minimal comfort, usually between $20,000 and $30,000 a year.

Levi Varahona, a 35-year-old man from Los Angeles, said, "I make $850 every two weeks but pay $950 a month for a one bed-room apartment. Affordable housing is the most important issue for my family." Varahona came to the Equal Voice event with his 15-year-old son and said his family of four shares the small living space. "I hope elected officials pay, not a lot, but just little more attention to needs of the people like me."

Varahona, multiplied by the 37 million people like him, comprise the 7.7 families living at or below the poverty line in the United States, according to the Marguerite Casey Foundation. Launched last year, the campaign will seek to demand from America's next president, as well as from elected officials, the adoption of the National Family Platform, a document that the foundation claims "comprehensively addresses the issues and challenges that families face." This stage of the campaign reached its zenith as the three-city conventions took place simultaneously. In addition to Los Angeles, conventions of working poor were held in Birmingham, Alabama and Chicago, Illinois.

At the L.A. convention, there was no visible presence of elected officials, yet the participants hewed faithfully to their belief that politicians would be supportive of the platform which listed, as its top items, affordable housing, health and child care, immigration reform, more employment opportunities, more equitable pay, better schools and a criminal justice system that doesn't discriminate against minorities.

"The gathering gives us a feeling of closeness and solidarity," said Heebok Kim, an 86-year-old community activist who is actively engaging in promoting the rights of bus riders in Los Angeles area.

"Working people are always in search of something better," said Kim. She watched as the crowd began striding out of the Convention center to their buses after a long day. "I don't expect things to change immediately," she said. "I just want the policy makers to hear our voices."

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