In the past two years, poverty rates in Riverside County rose from 12 percent to about 14 percent, according to the Community Action Partnership (CAP) Riverside, the agency charged with doing something about it.
“Poverty is a crushing, soul-eating state to be in,” says CAP’s Planning Division Manager Debra Jackson. “People are wallowing in despair. They might be depressed but can’t afford medications. It is a vicious circle.“
The federal and state governments give CAP $2.2 million a year to make a dent in the problem. And CAP is required to survey residents every two years to establish priorities and create a plan of action.
“We try to find out the needs of our low-income people to base our programs on the results that we find out from the survey,” says Gene Walker, CAP Chair.
The most recent survey in March was taken by 4,800 people. Analysts crunch the numbers and come up with a top ten list of concerns for poor people in Riverside County. The number one concern is jobs.
The rest of the top ten include, in order of importance: social services, affordable housing, economy, education, transportation, morale, cost of living, affordable health care and affordable child care.
Two years ago, education was much higher on the list. Bill Claire, a 14-year CAP commission member, says, “For years education was at the top. Then when we had the mortgage crisis and the market crash and the recession, all of a sudden jobs jumped to the top of the list.”
Jackson says the poor may be giving up on college, not because of the cost, but availability. Jackson blames state budget cuts. “With all of the reduced slots and enrollment numbers people were finding they couldn’t get in. They couldn’t get their courses. It was taking longer to graduate. And unfortunately, we think more people have just given up.”
CAP recently held a public forum to discuss the survey’s findings. They heard about transportation problems from several residents of the remote Desert Edge senior community, which is 8 miles from the nearest grocery store. Carol Smith told the crowd, “I have actually seen people hitchhiking in my area because we don’t have bus service – trying to get to a store. Some of them are infirm, walking with walkers and canes. One guy in a wheelchair! In the summertime, it’s just heartbreaking. To me, that’s a big problem.”
CAP is currently studying the problem of food deserts, defined as an area where the nearest grocery store is more than ten miles away in rural areas.
Lack of affordable child care also made the list, because many parents drop out of the work force if they can’t make enough to cover child care. Debra Loukatos, who works with a school district preschool program, attended the forum. She says “Families want to work. But they can’t afford $600 a month [per child] for childcare, so they can’t work.”
CAP’s motto says they will “end poverty by offering opportunities to the poor through education, wealth building, advocacy and capacity building.”
Their most popular program is called the Individual Development Program. It’s a grant of four dollars for each dollar saved, up to $4,000. The money can be used to buy a home, get an education, or start a business.
CAP also offers classes to train small business owners, gives grants to weatherize homes, connects poor families to mentors who help them achieve their goals and trains high school students in leadership skills and conflict mediations.
Debra Jackson is determined to make a difference: “We either have to address the issue ourselves or know who we can partner with to refer people to. No isn’t the answer. We have to have some solution to help people.”