Working and Not Making It

Trying to make ends meet in a low-wage town.

While Tucson prides itself on selling lots of big missiles, our economy is predominately guided by jobs in the service sector. Since NAFTA kicked in almost a decade ago, fewer and fewer industries in the metropolitan area actually make and export anything. Contrary to what economic development gurus had hoped, phone sales just aren't going to fill the job gap for working families.

While they don't come out and say it, local leaders seem to have accepted that our only hope is plain and simple: Get bigger; sell more stuff; so there's more stuff/people that need servicing. Try not to notice that those doing the servicing barely make ends meet.

Ten years ago, many of those working in the service sector were starting out at minimum wage or just above. In a 1950s economy, if this portion of the working population stayed on the job and got even small promotions, they would be solidly middle class by now. In the economy of 2002 they're lucky to be making $9 to $10 dollars an hour, $18,000 to $20,000 a year. Hard-working people do not like to think of themselves as poor, but with rising costs in all areas, there is simply no way to keep up. National statistics reveal that salaries of working people have increased barely 10 percent in the last 30 years. In this same time, the top 100 CEOs in America saw their average annual salary increase from $1.3 million to $37.5 million--a thousand times the pay of regular workers.

Perhaps the "giant sucking sound" associated with the new global economy is not money going to government or Third-World sweatshops, but the disappearing of hard-earned paychecks into the coffers of the rich. Which may be one reason why local leaders are unable to come up with a way to fight poverty and create more economic opportunity in Tucson. For many of them, and the politicians who are beholden to them, the current uneven distribution of wealth may not even be an issue. As this trend continues, however, Tucson finds itself in the predicament of creating more poverty than decent paying jobs. And, while we are a very generous community, as an old rabbi once said, "Charity is no substitute for justice."

The following interviews show the effects of low, stagnant wages on three working families in Tucson. If one major thing goes wrong, their safety net is weak to non-existent. Thousands of other families in our community find themselves in the same boat, with no sign of change in the future.


Steve Leon volunteers regularly at his son and daughter's elementary school, as well as teaching an after school chess club. Steve's wife works full-time at Desert Diamond Casino, and he works 15 hours a week at a pizza parlor, while apprenticing without pay in a tattoo shop. The family's combined income is around $20,000 a year, which Steve is quick to note "fluctuates up and down, mostly down." Within the year, he hopes to be hired as a full-time tattoo artist.

At 34, Steve has studied art, and frequently sells his art work at the swap meet. The tattoo parlor also has bought sheets of his designs. He is a quiet man with a quick smile. He picks his children up at school every day and is very involved in their welfare. When asked about his budget he broke it down easily as if it were never far from his mind.

"The kids and their mom are covered under her health plan. Our food is something like $400 a month. I try to sneak in some organic food, just a little at one meal. But it's expensive. Our rent is $400 a month, utilities $200 or so. The car insurance around $600 a year. Our car is old but it's paid for. Car expenses are about $60 monthly. All extra spending is around $50-100 a month, including stuff for the kids. But that's splurging. When they need shoes we buy them. Otherwise we don't buy a lot of stuff. . . . I buy paper for my artwork, but I can get a big piece and it takes me time to fill it up. Then I photocopy it and sell the copies at the swap meet."

When asked about health insurance, Steve laughs and says softly, "I don't go to the doctor. Not since high school. But it's all right. If we had an emergency we have about $2,000 in our savings and we would use that. We try to save every month. Lots of people don't save and the debt makes them really stressed out. I guess if we had to we would go into debt."


Rodrigo and Deborah Rea have three children. They both work, and still make time to be active in school activities and PTA. Rodrigo works 40-plus hours a week at a salvaging business, and usually squeezes in an extra 30 hours as a freelance mechanic. Since having their third child, Deborah has cut back her accounting work to 21 hours a week. They recently moved into a new neighborhood. Their combined monthly income, after deductions and health care coverage, comes to around $1,500.

"Our mortgage payment is $700 a month." Deborah says. "We spend about $400 on food. I shop for the kids twice a year, probably spending about $200 a piece. We have some savings and our car is paid for. Because of Rodrigo's job we don't pay for it to be serviced. Gas is somewhere like $50 a month. Health care comes out of Rodrigo's check. Our utilities come to a few hundred dollars. We're really careful about using too much water. We turn off our lights, and hang out our laundry to save money. Every month we put something aside for emergencies."

Deborah feels fortunate that their mortgage payment isn't higher. "We know people paying up to a $1,000 a month these days, for not that much house," she says. Many of their friends are stressed out by debt. As Deborah describes it, "They sit back and watch all their money go out the door each month." In order to keep saving Deborah describes the family adjustments:

"Everything we buy is used. Our cars are from Rodrigo's work. We don't buy new clothes. I can get great things at the thrift store, and everyone I know passes kids clothes along. I do the same with the girls' things. If we need an appliance, we look at yard sales. Same with furniture. Somebody says, 'Hey, I'm moving,' we go by and pick up a 'new' couch. People get by with this kind of networking." To come up with the money to buy their first house, the four of them lived for two years in a 30-foot-long travel trailer.

They have some debt, but are vigilant to keep it low. Deborah believes that the little things really add up. "We take our lunch to work or we don't eat. We don't take family vacations or go out to eat." In case of an emergency they would turn to friends and family. "Rodrigo is always helping someone fix up their vehicle and they in-turn help us with electrical things or plumbing. It happens a lot. We couldn't make it without networking. We call on our friends, our community. You help them. They help you."


Lina Ortiz is 53. She has been a full time teacher's assistant in a TUSD elementary school for 16 years. She started when her son Ruperto Jr., now 22, was attending school there.

Eight years ago, Lina's husband, Ruperto, was diagnosed with emphysema. In her mid-forties, Lina became the family's primary wage earner. She advanced to a bilingual TA. Because of his young age, Ruperto was a prime candidate for a lung transplant. A little over a year ago, he had the operation, but his health continued to be unstable and he recently passed away. Two teen-age sons still live at home.

"My husband had good jobs for many years. He worked construction and in the mines where he was exposed to hazardous materials. But even when it was good, things were always tight." Ruperto received an S.S.I. check each month, but if Lina made a little bit of extra money, his monthly check went down.

After deductions and health insurance, they made a little over a $1,000 a month before his death. Every month they barely covered their bills. Sometimes they simply had no choice but to pay late. "That's just the way it is." She says. "We hold off on things that won't get turned off. In the summer, when I am not getting a check, we couldn't make it if we didn't get food stamps. Yet we've worked all our lives."

Lina does what she can to keep the monthly costs as low as possible. She buys almost all the family clothes at thrift stores, and is conscientious about checking out secondhand items. The two Ortiz teens would like to work, but Lina is adamant that they wait until after high school. "They have the rest of their lives to work," she notes, "Right now they need to do well in school."

The family lives paycheck to paycheck. They have a small savings account. If an emergency hit them, she says they would figure out some way to get through. What counts most and comes first is family. In an interview just weeks before her husband's death, Linda said, "My husband says that as long as the kids are well and the family is together, then things couldn't be too bad. I agree."

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