San Diego Union-Tribune, August 28, 2007: Housing crisis adds to poverty picture

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By Michael Stetz

SAN DIEGO The people who fight poverty get a few days in the sun. They’re holding their national convention in downtown San Diego, starting today.

But clouds may be on the horizon, they fear.

Nationally, more people are losing their homes because of the subprime mortgage meltdown. Wages have been flat. We feel fortunate to pay 3 bucks for a gallon of gas.

A growing number of middle-class people are anxious, they say.

“Poverty is a hot issue,” said Donald Mathis, president of the Community Action Partnership, which represents hundreds of poverty-fighting agencies nationwide.

More than 1,000 people will attend the convention at the Manchester Grand Hyatt through Friday. They run such programs as Head Start, and literacy and job training services.

“They really are the saints of their communities,” Mathis said.

Mathis points to a recent poll showing more angst among Americans when it comes to poverty.

In a poll taken in June by the Zogby research firm, 55 percent of those responding said they were “very concerned” about poverty. The poll found 58 percent believed poverty was the single-most-important or a top priority facing the nation’s leaders.

The spate of home foreclosures is particularly alarming, Mathis said. Many people feel vulnerable. Poverty is sometimes hidden, invisible. This is not. This could happen to someone down the street, he said.

For July, the national distressed property rate was one filing for every 693 households, almost twice as much a year ago, when it was one of every 1,245, according to RealtyTrak. The numbers include defaults, foreclosures and bank repossessions.

“People of means are worried about falling into poverty,” Mathis said.

While San Diego has seen an increase this year in home foreclosures 2,896 for the first six months, more than six times the 445 foreclosed during the same period last year they have been concentrated in several newly developed communities, such as eastern Chula Vista, where buyers used risky financing two or three years ago, according to DataQuick Information Systems.

This week, the Census Bureau will release its 2006 poverty figures, and it should again cause debate.

Poverty fighters question the formula used to calculate the rate, which is based on food costs.

For instance, for a family of four to be considered impoverished, it has to earn less than $20,444. Critics say that’s far too low. Housing alone would eat up much of that cost.

Nationwide, 38 million people lived under the poverty line in 2005 about 13 percent of the population, according to the census. In 2000, the national poverty rate was 12 percent.

Some argue that the poverty situation needs to be put in a proper perspective. For instance, nearly three quarters of American households considered impoverished own a car, and 31 percent own two or more cars, according to the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Ninety-seven percent have a color TV. Eighty percent have air-conditioning.

San Diego County which is no place to be poor, considering the high housing costs has its share of the impoverished. But the county fares better than most.

According to the Census Bureau, 8 percent of county families lived below the federally set poverty level in 2005. That is 1 percentage point less than in 2000.

“We’ve had a good economy,” said Rene Santiago, the project director for the San Diego Community Action Project.

Staff writers Dean Calbreath, Roger Showley and Lori Weisberg contributed to this report.

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