If you heard 36-year-old Robert Garcia speak multiple times as he trod the Long Beach campaign trail on his way to become the youngest mayor in Long Beach history, you couldn’t help noticing that just about every speech he gave—no matter the topic, no matter the audience—closed on the same note. His inauguration speech last month was no different.
“As we sit here tonight in this room on this great night […] I want us to remember, there is still almost 20% of our neighbors who are living in poverty,” he said. “One in five of every one of our neighbors is struggling between [finding] healthcare, childcare, food, or a roof over their head. And I believe no matter what you do, no matter where you live, we are all in the business of helping people. And so I challenge us. If we are ever going to become the true international, world-class city that I know and believe we will be, we have a responsibility to help these neighbors. […] If we’re ever going to grow as a city, we must address this issue.”
Considering Garcia’s consistency in hitting this closing note during his campaign, I proposed to him that our interview—his first one-on-one as mayor—be on one, and only one, subject: poverty. He was happy to oblige.
Garcia knows whereof he speaks. A Peruvian immigrant who hit U.S. shores at the age of 5, Garica’s single mother busy working two or even three jobs to keep a roof over their heads. But it was not until middle school that Garcia became truly conscious of being poorer than most of his peers.
“I started realizing, ‘You know, my mom isn’t really around much. Why isn’t my mom around during the week?'” he says. “You start realizing around middle school or high school that your aunt is cleaning homes for a living, and that’s not really as good of a job as [your friends’] parents have. […] Many times when I was younger I felt the stigma of being poor. Many times I wished we had money to buy this or that. Many times I’d want to go out and get the newest pair of sneakers that every other kid had, but we couldn’t have them.”
That early experience of poverty has helped Garcia stay attuned to a problem that isn’t always readily apparent.
“I think sometimes people view poverty as someone on the verge of homelessness,” he says. “But you could walk by an apartment building in Alamitos Beach and never know that inside a one-bedroom apartment there could be eight people living there who are experiencing poverty. […] Youngsters that could be going to school and then playing soccer after school could be coming home and having Top Ramen every night because there’s not enough food and not enough money to eat well. Poverty can look like anybody. It could be a student. I met students who were homeless all the time at Long Beach City College [where Garcia worked as communications director 2007–2012]. There’s a large population of students there who are homeless.”
Garcia is quick to share his early experience with the underprivileged people he meets as a way to give them hope that poverty isn’t necessarily a permanent condition.
“I always try to remind people that I meet, particularly youngsters, that I was in a similar situation when I was younger,” he says. “I was an immigrant. I lived in an apartment with a lot of people, you know? My mom worked two jobs. No-one in my family had an education.”
While Garcia regards poverty as a broad-based problem, one of his foci is the way out that education can provide.
“Every major scholar in education will tell you that the best place to invest in a young person’s life is getting them in preschool,” he says. “It starts people off in a much stronger position to learn for the rest of their lives. And when you get a youngster in preschool, especially in low-income families the parent then has the ability to go to work and not have to pay for childcare.”
For older school-aged youth, Garcia intends to increase awareness of and strengthen the Long Beach College Promise, which provides all Long Beach Unified high-school graduates with a free first semester at Long Beach City College. He also wants to see more City resources invested in afterschool programs.
One area where Garcia sees Long Beach coming up woefully short in the fight against poverty is the number of internships available to high-schoolers. According to Garcia, currently there are about 1,500 internships available to 80,000 high-school students in Long Beach. Compare with a city like Boston, he says, which has 50,000 students and yet provides 10,000 to 15,000 internships.
“[I]n my first term we’re going to take that 1,500 and make it 3,000,” he says. “I’m going to work with businesses and the City to provide more opportunities for young people to work while they’re in school and gain those skills so they are confident and can figure out what they want to do. I think that kind of thing has a huge impact, particularly on those families that may not have a lot of resources.”
Among other help Garcia expects the City to provide for Long Beach’s poor will come in the form of additional affordable housing. “For [Fiscal Year 2015], I am recommending that the City place the $24.7 million identified above into the existing Housing Trust Fund to continue the City’s great work in the affordable housing arena and support our certified Housing Element,” reads a section of his proposed budget. “I am also recommending our Development Services Department explore methods to reconstitute the Housing Trust Fund so that more of our housing resources can be incorporated into the fund. […] Additionally, we must seek additional grant resources, such as State dollars, and advocate at the State level for those dollars to be available to assist with our entire spectrum of housing needs, from workforce housing to the lowest of income levels. I am asking that the City also work with housing advocates to develop ways of strengthening the Housing Trust Fund.”
Garcia also feels the City can do a better job connecting those in financial need with available resources, an end that can sometimes be furthered simply by promulgating information. As an example he tells of a part-time City employee whom he recently steered toward the benefits available to her via the Affordable Care Act.
“Getting her on the healthcare exchange is going to be beneficial for the City, because she now has more money in her pocket to go spend in the local grocery store, shopping at the local retailer,” he says. “So we need to make sure we connect the dots better. If we’ve got the Affordable Care Act, no matter whether people like it or doing like it (I personally like it), if it’s out there, we should encourage people to enroll so we as a community can see the benefit.”
But for all that government can do, Garcia feels that in some ways government not the most well equipped institution to combat poverty.
“If we had more resources, we could do more,” he says. “But I also don’t think government always does everything the best. Oftentimes things can be run much more successfully when it’s done by others. Look at Building Healthy Communities, for example. They do great work. They’re a nonprofit; they’re grant-funded. We couldn’t do half of the things they do as well [as they do], because they have a different mission. That’s their focus. We’re focused on [issues like] when someone calls 911, there’s going to be a cop there.”
Garcia rejects the premise that political conservatives are less committed to helping the poor than are liberals. Rather, he believes the difference is philosophical.
“Most people are pretty good people regardless of their political affiliation; they just have a different believing you can help people,” he says. “[… Political conservatives] may be more active in their church groups. They may give a lot to nonprofits that support the poor in other areas. I think there are a lot of people out there who are conservative who still believe in helping people; I just think they think about it in a different way.”
He does, however, see a lack of empathy at the conservative fringe of those in power.
“[Y]ou have some extreme individuals in Congress and in other places who I believe put in place policies that end up hurting middle-income Americans and especially the poor,” he says. “[…] Whether we’re businesspeople or churchgoers or nonprofits or government, we all have a responsibility to reach out and help our neighbors. […] Talking about it’s really important. But beyond that we need to ensure that we’re adopting policies that are not just about building the city, but about how we can better serve this population.”
One way that population can be better served is by shifting attitudes away from bogus stereotypes, such as that most poor people are simply unwilling to work hard enough to remedy their condition.
“The stereotypes we often hear about poverty are not just wrong, they are damaging to any informed discussion of policies to help working people,” he says. “Most Americans who are poor work extremely hard, often at two or more jobs. Any serious public policy discussion needs to focus on good jobs, educational opportunities, and the cost of living, not myths about poor people.”
Before Garcia was introduced on inauguration night, Davis Gaines took to the stage to sing one of Garcia’s favorite songs: Somewhere over the rainbow, skies are blue….
It’s a song that might very well have special meaning to every impoverished person. If Garcia gets his way, that 20% figure he kept mentioning during his campaign—and has kept mentioning ever since—will get progressively smaller in Long Beach.
But as we sit alone in the Mayor’s Conference Room on the 14th floor of city hall, his mayorship just one week old, Garcia recognizes the difficulty of the challenge, despite his unwavering optimism.
“Poverty is systemic,” he says. “It’s about education. It’s about healthcare. It’s about jobs. If we had figured out how to solve poverty, there wouldn’t be any. But it’s everywhere.”
He pauses, his face betraying discontent with that reality. “It’s a very frustrating issue,” he says finally. “I don’t think anybody’s ever doing well. But we’re working on it.”
(Image: Mayor Robert Garcia on inauguration night. Credit: Justin Rudd, JustinRudd.com.)