Berkeley's High Poverty Rate Worries Residents

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Berkeley resident Rosie Kreidler knows what it's like to fall on hard times all too well.

The former Olympic track star turned-nurse was severely injured in a car crash a few years ago and was unable to work. She became homeless, sleeping in her car while desperately fighting for federal aid.

Since then, Kreidler has rebuilt her life. Now living in senior housing and a member of Berkeley's Human Welfare and Community Action Commission, she has become a vocal advocate for solving a problem unnoticed by many Berkeley residents-poverty.

"You can't do anything except make it better for the next person as well as yourself. That's what it's about," she said. "Having hunger and having poverty in this country is a joke-it shouldn't even exist."

Although Berkeley has a reputation as a well-off, liberal enclave, 21 percent of Berkeley residents are living below the poverty line, compared with 17.6 percent in both Oakland and Richmond, according to the latest statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau. Statewide, the poverty rate is 12.4 percent.

City officials contend that the statistics are skewed, but may still reveal a lingering problem.

Mayor Tom Bates said the statistics are misleading because many college students who live in the area earn very little money.

"Berkeley is fortunate to have students living in our midst and they show up as living in poverty, when in fact they're very rich because they're receiving a world-class education," he said. "Berkeley definitely has poverty, particularly in Southwest Berkeley, but nowhere near the levels of surrounding areas."

Home values may also be partially to blame for Berkeley's poverty rate. The median home value in Berkeley is $755,300 compared with $595,000 in Oakland.

Jenny Chung, program manager at the Insight Center for Community Economic Development, said the current economic crisis can make it easier for people to fall into poverty.

"As foreclosures have gone up, demand for rental units has gone up because people are displaced, so rents go up," she said. "That automatically drives up the minimum amount of income the family needs. If their wages aren't going up at the same rate, the gap grows and they're falling even shorter than they would normally."

City officials said the federal government was responsible for many aid programs, but that the current administration has neglected its duty.

"The Bush administration has all but forgotten about poor people," Bates said. "As a consequence, poverty plays out on our streets."

Although Berkeley already has several programs to help low-income residents through bodies like the Berkeley Housing Authority and the Public Health Division, more programs could be added to increase representation.

For example, Chung said the definition of poverty level should be changed to incorporate more people, a practice Los Angeles is considering.

"If you were to bump it up to what families and individuals actually need, you'd actually find that percentage would likely go up," she said. "The (census) is not really even covering a good chunk of the population that is in poverty in Berkeley."

Despite a desire to increase programs, Bates said cuts in federal funding will make this difficult to accomplish.

"If anything, we're going to have to figure out how to do more with less," he said. "We're seeing our income being reduced - the federal government has got to step up."

Individual citizens, such as Kreidler, may have to step up, too. Aside from her work on the commission, Kreidler is starting a program called Dolls for Life and Dignity, which would sell dolls made by homeless women to pay for part of their rent.

"We can't bury this-the only thing we're going to do is dig our own graves," she said. "If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone. I look back at it and I'm very grateful to God that I'm alive and I have a roof over my head. The only thing I know how to do is to give back."


Contact Amy Brooks at [email protected]

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