LA Times Columnist Steve Lopez on Child Poverty in LA

Hari Sreenivasan sits down with Steve Lopez who recently published a four-part series on child poverty in Los Angeles, focusing on the stories from Telfair Elementary School, an oasis for some of its homeless students.

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AMANPOUR: So a little girl once said that there is no place like home. But for many children, clicking your heels three times like Dorothy did is no remedy for homelessness. Steve Lopez is a columnist for “The L.A. Times” who recently published a four-part series on child poverty in Los Angeles, focusing on the stories from Telfair Elementary School where nearly a quarter of the student body is homeless. Many living in motels and garages, little to eat, no way to do homework, victims of rising housing costs. Lopez told our Hari Sreenivasan the school is an oasis for these children.

HARI SREENIVASAN, CONTRIBUTOR: Steve Lopez, you did a four-part series on child poverty in Los Angeles. You spent months looking at one school. Why?

STEVE LOPEZ, COLUMNIST, THE LOS ANGELES TIMES: I was curious about how it could be that California could have the fifth largest economy in the world, not in the nation but in the world, and yet about 20 percent of the population living in poverty. And when you break those numbers down, it means there are about 2 million children in California living in poverty. And one day, I bumped into the superintendent of Los Angeles Unified School District. And he was new on the job and I asked how it was going. And he mentioned that the challenges are many and asked if I was aware that there are a couple of schools where nearly a quarter of the student body was homeless. So I decided to check that out. And one of those schools is Telfair Elementary. So I spent several weeks hanging around there talking to teachers, to the principal, and to families.

SREENIVASAN: So what does it look like if a quarter of the school population is homeless? How do they — we’re not talking about people panhandling on the streets. It’s a different kind of homelessness.

LOPEZ: It is a different kind of homelessness. We’re not talking about students, camps in tents outside the front office of the school. What happens is that families each year in Los Angeles Unified are asked to fill out a residency questionnaire. And you have to check these boxes, do you live in a motel? Do you live in a vehicle? Do you live in a shared apartment or home? Or do you live in a place of your own? And a shocking number of students in Los Angeles Unified a couple years ago, it was 17,000 checked one of those boxes and last year 15,000 plus. And little Telfair Elementary School which only had about 750 or 60 students had more than anybody. They had about 180 of their students who had checked one of those boxes and a third of those were living in garages in the neighborhood.

SREENIVASAN: You mean the garages that are attached to homes just where we would normally park our cars?

LOPEZ: Where you would keep your lawn mower and your motor oil, yes. No, there is a — it’s actually become quite an industry in Los Angeles. It’s not entirely new. It’s just that in this economy, the housing costs are still rising way faster than wages are rising. So people are, you know, stretched to the limits and there are all of these creative living arrangements. And I spoke to one real estate agent who recently sold a four-bedroom house to somebody who was going to live in a back shanty and rent three of the bedrooms for $700 a month each. And the one bedroom that had a bathroom was going to go for about $950. So you have families living in situations like that all around Telfair Elementary School.

SREENIVASAN: These are not low prices. Why do people agree to pay some of these prices? Or you also mention that they’re living in motels. That’s not an economic option.

LOPEZ: No, there are no economic options in Los Angeles right now. We’ve had, because of a housing shortage, a skyrocketing of rents of every kind. So it’s not uncommon to find somebody living in a garage paying $1500 a month. Now, these are garages that, you know, they’ve been converted. Some of them have bathrooms. There’s running water. Some of them have kitchens. So it’s kind of like, in many cases, maybe a studio apartment or a one- bedroom. So they’re not necessarily horrible living conditions. But when you have families and you have children in school and there’s no quiet place to do the homework and there’s no yard to go outside and play in because the owners’ family is out there, it puts all of these burdens on these families. And then those burdens transfer over to the schools because teachers will tell you about students who show up who maybe didn’t have a nutritional hot meal or they didn’t get their homework done because they didn’t have a quiet place to do it. They’re not focused on the lesson plan that day because maybe somebody next door was noisy and they didn’t get any sleep. So all of these burdens walk into these classrooms every day at Telfair.

SREENIVASAN: You’re focused in — for one of the stories, there is a video of a family that you meet who is living in a motel. And just the act of getting the children to school on a daily basis is an uncertainty.

LOPEZ: That’s right. Two months into the current school year, the family had lived in three or four different places. They were in a motel, moved into an apartment that was a two-bedroom, one-bath that 17 people were living in. That wasn’t working out so moved back to a motel. But the cheapest motel was six miles from school and the mother doesn’t have a car. So it was either public transportation or call a relative or a friend and hope somebody would take the kids to school. And sometimes they showed up and sometimes they didn’t. And in that motel room, this is one-room. It’s a small room. There are two beds. There is no kitchen. There is no desk, no place to do your homework. The place is kind of noisy. There are some nefarious activities going on in that motel and all the surrounding motels. And this is how thousands of children are growing up in Los Angeles.

SREENIVASAN: One of the things that strike me about that video is the mother is concerned about malnutrition that she is not able to feed her children regularly.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yesterday, (INAUDIBLE), you know. But sometimes it just — it hurts me to see them hungry.


LOPEZ: You know, when I was in the motel room, I saw a 7/11 pizza box. And this was early in the morning so I assumed it was from the night before which I guess it was. And when the ride was not showing up to take the three kids to school, one of the kids, the little girl who was 5-years-old was getting hungry. So she walked over, opened up that 7/11 pizza box and put a piece of pepperoni pizza into the microwave and that was breakfast. I mean the one thing these kids look forward to is the school is kind of an oasis. It’s safe. They serve you hot meals. But if you don’t get to school, you don’t get to take advantage of those.

SREENIVASAN: So what happens to this children? What are the ripple effects? What are the forces that are weighing on them by the time they get to class?

LOPEZ: Well, you know, teachers talk about how they’re a little unfocused. Maybe they’re tired. Maybe they didn’t do their homework. Maybe they ate something but it wasn’t the best food to prepare you for a day in school. So there are those things. And then it becomes a little more serious. They find irritability. They find mood disorders, high rates of depression even among elementary school students. And the thing that’s of even greater concern is all of this recent research about adverse childhood experiences and the more of these that you’re exposed to, including unstable housing situations, and broken families, and not [13:45:00] enough of an income to get you to school regularly or to put food on the table, you have not just physical and mental challenges and ailments as a child. But they’re finding, researchers are, that these are lasting into adulthood. Something like twice the normal rate of heart disease if you’re exposed to four or more of these adverse childhood experiences. So this is not just a problem in K through 5 for these kids. This is something that may be with them for a lifetime.

SREENIVASAN: It also sounds like the teachers here are the front lines for not just teaching but everything else. I mean you’re describing a social worker or a team of social workers that would have to grapple with any of these specific challenges individually. But really the only person that’s going to have to face this for 15 or 20 kids in her or his classroom is that teacher.

LOPEZ: You know we’ve looked at some of the test scores of schools like Telfair and we sit back in judgment, “Oh, that school is failing.” What I saw was inspirational. And you’re right, teachers are social workers, sometimes they’re parents. They’ve got — they wear a lot of different hats. And they’re dealing with problems that come in with these kids because of the conditions they’re living in. And I should tell you that if you drive just a few miles from Telfair Elementary, you can see where the Lockheed Martin plant closed. You can see where the G.M. Auto Manufacturing plant closed, where the Price Pfister Kitchen Faucet plant closed. And all of those jobs were, which were middle-income jobs, were replaced by service economy jobs. So a lot of these families I’m talking about that are living in motels, some of them in vehicles, some of them in garages, they’re not sitting around all day. These are working families. But we have an economy that is serving just a few people at the top and those in the middle, at the bottom are struggling. So the Telfair story is not just about child poverty. It’s about this economy. It’s about something broken in California. How can you have the state that has such incredible staggering wealth, hundreds of billionaires, the fifth largest economy in the world, and thousands, actually millions of children living in poverty? Something is broken. And I have not yet met anybody who has any ideas on how to really address that.

SREENIVASAN: You’re pointing to something systemic. You’re pointing to something also generational when some of these children grow up in these situations, they’re almost trapped.

LOPEZ: The odds are really against them and that was another thing that really inspired me about this school Telfair. The teachers believe in them. The teachers believe that each of them can make it under the right circumstances. And they know that they come from, you know, living conditions that can be pretty depressing. And they want the school to be an uplifting, safe, comfortable place. And the person who sets the tone for that is the principal, Jose Razzo. Jose Razzo grew up just a few blocks from Telfair Elementary. And when he was a boy, lived with his mother and his siblings for a while in a garage. And Jose tells the story about that garage not having a bathroom. And if you needed to use the restroom, you had to walk outside the garage, go around, go up knock on the front door of the owner, the owner’s house, and ask permission to use the bathroom. This is a guy who had faith. He had his mother behind him saying your faith and education is going to get you through it. He did well in school. He played in the band in high school. He joined the United States Marine Corps. He came back. He started as a teacher’s aide and then became a teacher and then wanted to run a school. And he runs this school with banners. College university banners are hanging from the hallways, from the auditorium, from the first day. It’s not, “Are you going to college kids? Which one are you going to go to?” On Fridays, you don’t have to wear your uniform to school if you wear a university t-shirt or a sweater. So this is a really sad story. It’s tragic but I found great inspiration in the attitudes, on the hard work, and the ethics of the principal and his teachers.

SREENIVASAN: You know one of the things that your stories also point out is that if we just looked at the test scores, we’d miss the nuance that you’re describing here. We wouldn’t see the inspiration. We just essentially — and I think one of the people in the story had said the test scores really are much more of a measure of poverty. Not necessarily of their potential.

LOPEZ: Yes. I think that it’s a measure of poverty rather than a promise. These are smart kids. And when they have access to the right things, I think there’s no limit on what they can accomplish. But let’s take a look at Telfair and what do they have [13:50:00] or what do they not have. Given all of this trauma, you’d think they would have a psychiatric social worker. They do not. You’d think they’d have a nurse. The nurses there are only a couple days a week. You’d think you’d want to expose them to reading and to, you know, the power of words, the library is usually closed. These are the problems we’re seeing at a school, in a district, in a state. That when I was in public school, this is a few years ago in California, California was a model for the nation. Schools were well funded. The resources were there. And those schools helped drive what became this great, powerful economic engine in California. We short trip our kids today. How can you have a situation like that in this economy, with this level of poverty, and not have the tools that the students need to succeed? That part of this is tragic and very discouraging.

SREENIVASAN: One of the statistics that leaped out to me and other people when we read on a story, you said 80 percent of the students at the L.A. Unified School District qualify for a free or reduced lunch. That’s a stagger — that’s 480,000 kids out of the 600,000 that go to the school district.

LOPEZ: I mean imagine that. Imagine that. And yet we have these conversations about, “Gee, what’s wrong with the schools?” Do we need more charters? Is the teacher’s union running things? And do we need to crack down on that? Let’s have another politicized school board election. What I think I discovered in working on the series was that the schools are not the problem, society is. Everything else is, we’re the problem. We are expecting the schools to address the shortcomings in this economy and they’re doing their best. Many of them, sure, they could improve, sure we need to find new ways to support the schools and help them do better. But we’ve got much bigger problems than what’s going on in the schools.

SREENIVASAN: As you look at this problem, what have you seen? Have you seen anybody tackle this in a successful way?

LOPEZ: You often hear people say that let’s not throw more money at this problem. And those tend to be people whose children are not at those schools. I mean when you don’t have a nurse and you don’t have a library that you can keep open, yes, money would help. Some recent studies have determined that one problem in California more so than in other states, maybe it’s because of the large poor community and large immigrant population, is that once students in California begin school, they do as well as students in other states but they begin further behind. And so there is talk about a new focus in California on pre-school intervention, on very early childhood education, on a better system of coordinating all of those kinds of services, more parent coaching. I’d like to see school campuses become community centers. This is an idea I got many years ago from New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley who was running for president. And I was out on the campaign trail and he asked — when he made his campaign stops in many neighborhoods in America, he said a public school campus is the only safe oasis and it’s a place where you may have the only library and the only gymnasium and the only place with all of these resources, why do we lock the doors at 3 p.m.? Why don’t we keep those open and make them community centers where people with a trade can come and talk about how they got into that business, where the kids have access to the books in the library. I think we need to rethink what can be done with school campuses and also what can be done to get kids better equipped before kindergarten so that they’re ready for school.

SREENIVASAN: All right. Steve Lopez, the four-part series is at the “L.A. Times”. Thanks so much.

LOPEZ: Thank you.

About This Episode EXPAND

Christiane Amanpour speaks with U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill about the consequences of fierce partisanship and actress/activist Ashley Judd about the road ahead for the Me Too movement. Hari Sreenivasan speaks with Steve Lopez, columnist for the LA Times, about the child poverty rate in LA.