Understanding What Poverty Is: Questions for Dr. Michael Riley

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Dr. Michael Riley knows what it is like to be on the low end of the income scale. He grew up poor in Nebraska and didn’t see the ocean until he was in his late teens and on a plane headed for Vietnam.

Today he leads the Orange County Social Services Agency, which has nearly 4,000 employees and is responsible for serving more than 475,000 — about 1 in 7 — county residents each month. And the job has only become more difficult in the aftermath of the Great Recession.

From the 2006-2007 fiscal year to the 2010-2011 fiscal year, the agency saw a 126-percent increase in CalFresh (formerly known as Food Stamps) recipients and a 156-percent increase in recipients of general relief payments. These increases have happened while the agency’s workforce has shrunk due to budget cuts.

Riley talked with Voice of OC about the challenges facing the agency as it deals with both old and new faces of poverty and what needs to be done.

Q: Being the head of Social Services in what has been described as America’s reddest county is certainly an interesting job. That being said, how do you balance the “pull yourself up by your own bootstraps” conservative philosophy with the traditional “give a helping hand” mission of a social services agency?

A: The first thing you have to understand is what poverty is. When you look at poverty, people tend to think — I’m talking in generalities, of course — that these people are there because they are lazy or there is something wrong with them. It comes down to “those people over there,” and that is because they don’t really understand poverty.

Back in 1965, when Lyndon Baines Johnson initiated the war on poverty, the one thing he said was that we are going to defeat poverty, not the people in poverty. And since about 1980 the whole thing has been spun around and now it’s the people in poverty. And there’s the idea that anyone can pull themselves out of poverty if they really want to. But it’s easier to pull yourself up by your bootstraps if you have boots. …

If we are going to make a change, we are going to have to change how we look at poverty, and that is there is nothing extraordinary about people who are in poverty. They are people just like everyone else, just as smart, just as intelligent, but without the same level of opportunity as people in the middle class have.

The bridge from poverty to the middle class is education. When education is not provided on an equal basis, these families are doomed to stay in the same situation for generations to come. That is what we have to change. … You need to give families bootstraps; that’s what I see as our job.

Q: What, if anything, new is out there these days when it comes to creating new awareness and bridging the gap you are speaking of?

A: There’s really not that much out there. That’s why we’re trying to turn the tide again. People say the war on poverty was not successful. The war on poverty really was successful. About 30 percent of the population really got out of poverty and moved on. I think that is pretty good. … I’m not suggesting another war on poverty; that’s not what I’m suggesting.

What I am suggesting is a lot more grassroots activities, paying more attention to what’s really going on out there. The media is actually doing somewhat of a better job. You look at “60 Minutes,” and they are looking at some things and highlighting some things. … [What people] don’t realize is how bad off you have to be to qualify.

Q: How have the faces of the people your agency serves changed during the Great Recession years?

A: The faces have changed significantly so. For example, our Aliso Viejo office in South Orange County. We had an increase of almost 175 percent of people coming into our office and asking for assistance. Well, you can imagine what the household income is in South County.

The additional people coming in that office were upper-income, middle-class families who are now coming in asking for services. So the faces have changed.

In fact, we have talked to our staff and in a sense retrained them on how to work with these new families coming in. Because when they would come in and ask for services and we would say, “I’m sorry, you have too many assets, you don’t meet the criteria,” they would become angry and they would make comments like “All these years I’ve been paying my taxes, and now that I need help, you won’t help me. …”

They were never used to having to deal with that kind of indignation before, because typically most of our clients are low-income and unfortunately grateful for whatever we can do for them.

But not this new group that is coming in. They are coming in entitled and saying, “Wait a minute, I’m a taxpayer. I’ve paid my taxes; now give me some help.”

Q: If there is one social service issue that members of the current Board of Supervisors has championed above others, it is homelessness. Talk about some of the successes you’ve had and some of the challenges you face as you work toward the goal of ending homelessness?

A: One of the issues with homelessness is that the focus may be a little too narrow as far as what homelessness is. Again, homeless is a symptom of poverty — and unless you are addressing the issue of poverty, in other words, what is happening? How do people get to this point?

That is why we have rapid rehousing. What gets lost on the general populace is that they think of homelessness as the mentally ill people who are pushing their cart, … but that is a very small percentage. Most of the homeless people have full-time jobs. Many homeless people are working two jobs. They don’t have enough money to get into an apartment because you have to have first month, last month and then you need a deposit.

Here in Orange County it takes about $3,200 to get into a one-bedroom apartment. We have families out there living in their car or living in temporary hotels, and they are working every day just like you and I. … But they don’t have $3,200 to get into a place.

This rapid rehousing, which has come out of looking at the homeless issue, has allowed these families who don’t have a problem getting a job but just don’t have $3,200. With rapid rehousing, there are a number of nonprofit groups doing an outstanding job. They just put them into an apartment.

From there you can go ahead and make your monthly payments, … but they need help getting into a place. So I think, again, that there is a greater understanding of what the barriers are for these people. And if we can help them get over those barriers, then they can go from there.

Q: What is the mark that you want to leave on this agency?

A: I don’t know if I have a mark. I just would like to think that I left it better than I found it. And I found it in good shape, because I stand on the shoulders of the directors before me, who also did a pretty darn good job. And I would just like to think that I made it even better. That means we have served more families, and we’ve served them well.

— DAVID WASHBURN

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