Laboring harder, slipping behind

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Ruben Rangel

Compton resident Ruben Rangel, a single father, works 80 hours a week -- as a baggage handler at LAX and as a janitor at a Ralphs supermarket -- to support his five children. (Bob Chamberlin / Los Angeles Times / August 26, 2008)

Every day is Labor Day for Ruben Rangel.

The 48-year-old Compton resident works most days from 1:30 to 9:30 p.m. as a baggage handler at Los Angeles International Airport. Then he changes clothes and pulls a shift as janitor at a Ralphs from midnight to 9 a.m.

Rangel, a single father, works about 80 hours a week to provide for his five kids, ages 8 to 20. His jobs pay a combined $45,000 and provide health coverage for the family.

"Every year it's harder," Rangel told me. "I'm getting older and it's becoming more and more difficult to work two jobs."

Times are tough. Food costs are up, fuel costs are up. It's hard paying the rent or mortgage. A major medical problem can wipe you out.

The Census Bureau reported last week that the median household income rose 1.3% to $50,233 in 2007, while the poverty rate was unchanged at 12.5%. But that was before the U.S. economy took some of its roughest blows.

Inflation averaged 2.8% last year. It's now running at an annual rate of 5.6%. Meanwhile, average weekly earnings were down 3.1% last month from a year earlier. Employment has fallen every month this year.

"The typical working family is considerably more squeezed this year than it was last year -- and last year wasn't so great," said Jared Bernstein, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington.

Although the median household income rose slightly last year from a year before, a closer look reveals a less encouraging trend.

In the 1989-2000 economic cycle, median household income rose 8.3% in real terms after rising 6.5% over the previous decade. But from 2000 to 2007, income dropped 0.6% despite relatively strong overall economic growth.

Though the poverty rate held steady last year at 12.5%, it has risen from 11.3% since 2000. More than 37 million Americans now live in poverty, and the number of children living in poverty increased 4% last year to 13.3 million.

The federal government defines poverty as an annual income of $10,400 for individuals and $21,200 for a family of four. In California, a full-time minimum-wage worker makes just $16,640.

The one bright spot in last week's census figures was a drop in the number of people lacking health insurance, down in 2007 to 45.7 million from 47 million in 2006.

But that's not a reflection of more people being covered by employer-based insurance plans or other private-sector policies. Census officials say there are fewer uninsured because more people are now covered by taxpayer-funded insurance plans such as the State Children's Health

Insurance Program and Medi-Cal.

The share of Americans with employer-based coverage fell last year for the seventh year in a row, to 59.3% from 59.7%.

Sharlette Villacorta, 36, works 40 hours a week behind the deli counter of an Albertsons market in Los Feliz. It's a good job, she said, paying $15 an hour, and helps her provide for her four boys, ages 4 to 10.

But it's harder every year to get by.

"It's really difficult juggling the bills, the mortgage, buying groceries," Villacorta said.

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