Wage Disparity Across Gender, Race, and Ethnicity

Sharon Cornet

 SOC 402

 Annie Shropshire

 December 11, 2008


        According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (2002) the city of El Paso is the 5th largest city in Texas ( 1). El Paso is also the largest port of entry into the United States, has a population of about 800,000 people (and another 2.5 million across the border in Juarez, Mexico), and has moderate temperatures year around. Additionally, El Paso is ranked as the third safest city in the nation (The City of El Paso, Texas, 2008) regarding crime rates (including murder). At first glance El Paso sounds like a huge asset to the state of Texas, and yet Texas Senator Eliot Shapleigh (2008), whose home office is in El Paso, has on his website an article citing the Census Bureau’s statistics, where El Paso is rated as “the fourth-poorest city” in the Union. How can this be? El Paso’s wages are commonly at the minimum wage level. Public service jobs often require bilingual speakers, and a Hispanic minority is actually the majority in terms of numbers of people within the city (75%-80% on average).
        Sociocultural factors are also involved. Mexican-Americans have a more old-fashioned sense of family, where the man is the breadwinner, and the woman is expected to stay home, cook, clean, and take care of the house and children. Even though many El Paso women are working more than in the past, the gendered division of labor is prevalent because of cultural norms within this population. According to the first pie chart on the City-Data website (http://www.city-data.com/poverty/poverty-El-Paso-Texas.html) many working women (49.4%) are single (or are single parents), plus 83% of El Paso’s poorest married-couple households (about one-third in each category) have only one person who works full-time, or one who works part-time, or the husband and the wife (both) don’t work at all. Due to El Paso’s low wages, segregated labor market, gendered division of labor, a high minority population, and sociocultural factors within Mexican-American families, the poor, regardless of their backgrounds, are likely to remain marginalized for a long time to come, even though the city is making an effort towards economic growth within the city limits.
        The EPA (2002) has stated: “The downtown business district and nearby neighborhoods have suffered steady economic declines since the 1960s . . . has resulted in the loss of thousands of manufacturing jobs in El Paso and the abandonment of manufacturing facilities throughout the city,” plus the demographic numbers from six years ago hold very close to what they are today according to the EPA: “El Paso is one of the poorest urban areas in the country, with a 7% unemployment rate, a 34% poverty rate, and a 77% minority population” ( 1).
        Poverty is high in the “barrio” area near downtown, and the older parts of town. Unincorporated communities that lie outside of the El Paso city limits, which lack infrastructure and often have inadequate housing, are called “colonias.” Laws have been enacted in the Texas State Legislature since the 1980’s, and more specifically in the mid and late 1990’s that have tried to curb urban sprawl and poverty by going after corrupt developers that were selling cheap land (i.e., colonia land) to people. Since the poor could not afford houses within the city (or pay high rent prices, especially since low-income housing was limited) these would often be the primary customers of the developers. Sometimes developers or land sales businesses (Realtors) would promise that city water and/or electricity was on its way, but some 20+ years later many of these communities are still without these and other services (such as sewer, trash pickup, flood control, proper platting, fire hydrants or fire departments, health facilities, etc.).
        Social structural factors were involved in why these areas of cheap land were so popular with low-income people. With wages being so low in the city of El Paso, and rent being too high to survive on one income, it was a way for people to purchase land, build a little at a time, and have their own house (with low taxes). I felt this wage vs. cost-of-living sting too.  I was a young 17-year old who was married, had a baby, and we had two old cars, we both worked minimum wage jobs, and hated living in the city (especially when the sewage from the entire apartment building we were living in backed up into our apartment through our toilet!). Sirens would go off, traffic would whiz by on the other side of the wall, pollution filled your nostrils, including the smoke from all the fireplaces in Juarez, Mexico during winter (since El Paso and Juarez share the same air). We wanted to buy our own house and get out of that cheap place, but we couldn’t afford it. We started to save money. In the meantime I tried to build credit, but it was a Catch-22 since institutions kept telling me that I needed credit in order to build credit. It was frustrating! That is when we decided to start looking at living in the country, since we could buy land and a trailer far cheaper than a house in the city. With a down payment, we were sure the bank would give us a loan for something more inexpensive.
        Since then, my family’s experience has been of living in a rural colonia; however, back in 1989 we knew nothing of the term “colonia” (which simply means “neighborhood” in Spanish), nor of the extreme negative connotation that would be associated with it as the years would go by, due to the media, politicians, and other institutions who felt that living cheaply meant living “dirty” or “filthy.” Some people down in El Paso’s lower valley had cesspools and shallow water wells, which caused their water to become contaminated. Sarah Hill (2006) quoted one politician when he was spoke about the colonia people (making them into “the other”), that they would “drink their own sewage,” although that kind of scenario was the exception, not the rule. It was true, however, that some people could only afford to haul their own water in from town in 55 gallon drums, etc., and that some places and families dealt with health issues. Educational programs such as “Agua Para Beber” (http://www.bordereeweb.net/cgi-bin/risee/beee/bw_showorg?id=&org=BW8050), meaning “Water To Drink,” helped people in the community learn to find other ways of dealing with contaminated water, to purify it (or use bleach drops to sanitize it), to wash their hands, and use other techniques to improve their situation. Not everyone in colonias had that situation.
        When we bought our 1-acre plot, with our small savings, from small wages, we were proud to own our own property! To us, it was like homesteading (there is still a “Homestead Exemption” for properties in the county today, to help lower taxes in these “poor” areas). We were informed – unlike others in south Texas and different areas on the Texas-Mexico border – that there was no city water, but it could be hauled in by a professional water hauling company, and pumped into the house/trailer plumbing via a 2,500-gallon water storage tank (above-ground cistern). This seemed like a viable option to us. Electricity was all that we needed in order to use a water pump, and be able to turn on lights, use our appliances, etc. We paid $1,800 cash for that acre, and bought another acre a couple of years later next to our land (for the ‘investment’).
        My first experience in community organizing occurred when we purchased the first acre. I did some research and located the people who had bought some of the land between the paved state-maintained road – where the electric poles were located – and our land (about mile away on a dirt road). I created a petition showing that the people who owned the land would agree to move and live on the property if the electric lines were brought out. I went to the El Paso Electric Company and showed them the signed petition and they agreed that it would then be cost-effective to bring out $10,000 worth of (work and) electric lines and poles to our neighborhood. With some financial help from my parents, and a bank loan, it was only several months when we got electricity, a trailer, a registered septic tank, a water tank and pump, and then moved onto our land. These were the great times because we had cook-outs with our neighbors, family, and friends out in the desert, and would play guitar and sing by the bonfire at night – under stars that shone brightly in the black sky, 20 miles away from the “light pollution,” “noise pollution,” “air pollution,” etc. of the city. We enjoyed country life! It was a life we could afford. Our quality of life had improved!
Others in colonias have felt the same way. Back in 1989 I was unaware of the seemingly negative “colonia” issues. I only knew that our experience was grand. Ken Flynn of the Los Angeles Times even covered another local man’s experience at the time:

    “Many colonia dwellers are refugees from city slums and housing projects, and most are American citizens or legal immigrants. ‘I was desperate for a place to
    live,’ [Eleazar] Morales said. ‘Rents in El Paso tenements were too high, and the living conditions in the city are not good for raising children.’ . . . ‘Many of the
    people of the colonias moved out of El Paso housing projects that are riddled with violence, crime and drugs,’ he said. ‘Others can't find public housing, since El
    Paso has only a 1% housing vacancy for low-income families and a frozen waiting list.’ For many in the colonias, he said, moving from the city to the country to
    get away from crime has brought an encounter with a different kind of crime, that of ‘uncaring and dishonest developers.’ There have been no deaths reported
    from the unsanitary living conditions, but public health officials say life in the colonias means illnesses usually not associated with life in the United States.’" (1989)
        Legislation against the development of colonias thickened in the year 1995, when (House Bill) HB 1001 was enacted, and Chapter 232, Subchapters B, C, & E, made it impossible to sell land (http://www.oag.state.tx.us/consumer/border/history.shtml) in the county if it was under 5 acres in size (5 acres and up were/are exempt). Also, through amendments and restructuring the laws, electricity service became unavailable to anyone (unless grandfathered) in these “illegal” neighborhoods (colonia properties) if city water wasn’t present (realizing water wells are not financially or logistically feasible or reliable everywhere). People have moved onto their properties to find they could not receive electricity, or it was turned off and they could not get it turned back on unless they qualified for a special County-approved Certificate of Compliance. Not everyone qualifies for them (I don’t). If the property is abandoned, the property value goes down to $10 per acre, without state compensation.  These laws have effectively produced the opposite effect they were intended for. The poorest of the poor, who live in these colonias, suddenly go from a quality of life that may be less than that of the city (or equal to it, or better than, depending on circumstances) to living in third-world conditions.
With electricity residents can have lights, heat, cooling, use their appliances, pump their water into their house to flush toilets and use the sinks and wash clothes, plus, with water pressure they can use an at-the-sink water filter from the local hardware store and filter/purify their water, so that the water they drink and cook with is superior to chlorinated city water! Without electricity all of this is lost, quality of life is lost, everything they’ve worked hard for and invested in is diminished, property rights are stolen from them, property values are dropped to $10 (significant property value loss, which is called “a taking,” and Texas, by law, is required to financially compensate property owners if they take 25% or more of their property value, but colonias are overlooked/ignored). A loss of quality of life, also, is a human rights issue.
        Somehow legislators continue to justify this as an “improvement” to rural citizens’ lifestyle, particularly the poorest of the poor, who struggle to put food on the table. It is unjust. This is clearly structural violence because these laws affect ONLY the “under 5 acres” of “Texas properties within 50 miles of the U.S.-Mexico border” and ignores those who can afford 5 acres or more (even if they, too, do not have city water, and use a water tank). The lifestyle (living circumstances – water source, propane, septic, house or trailer, etc.) of the public can be exactly the same, but those who have less (or next to nothing) are punished severely by denying them service that would bring quality of life, and those who have more money/property are rewarded with electric service.
The way the colonia laws are structured, are selectively victimizing the poor.  These unfair laws CROSS ALL LINES of race/ethnicity, which is about 95% Hispanic/Mexican/Latino in colonias, but includes Caucasians, African Americans, Native Americans, Asians, and peoples of other genetic and mixed backgrounds. It also crosses all lines of gender and age (affecting families, single parents, men, women, children, the elderly, extended family members, etc.). Lastly, it crosses all lines regarding wage earnings (socioeconomic class), because even though a high percentage of colonia residents are making minimum wage, or slightly above it, there are numerous families who bring in two incomes, or are middle class, and even upper class.
        One has to question WHY this has gotten so far out of hand the last thirteen years, and caused suffering and damage to families all the way down the Texas border (amounting to literally thousands and thousands of families!). Many who are poor try to find a way to get water and/or electricity, but are denied services or the paperwork needed to achieve electrification of their property. Many give up, and are either forced to live as if they were in the dark ages, or they have to abandon their homes. What would be the purpose of going after developers (condemning them, as if they were ALL corrupt?) and harming the residents who were supposed to be protected by these laws? The answer is very simple. There is a reason why so many communities STILL have no city water after these many decades… it is COSTLY!
        I presently do volunteer work with Border Interfaith (www.borderinterfaith.org), an affiliate organization of the IAF (Industrial Areas Foundation) where community organizing and dealing in nonpartisan politics (by meeting with politicians to voice the needs of the community), hosting Public Life Institutes, Issues Forums, and more, are the foundation of how we achieve changes in the community (such as city water to the Canutillo colonia, planting trees in a colonia park, holding a steel factory to air pollution laws, dealing with education and health issues, and other community concerns). The million dollar project to get city water to a single neighborhood (where the water line is at the corner of the sub-division) has taken us 1 years, and still has at least 2 years to go (minimum) before the neighborhood will receive the water. It took another IAF affiliate organization, EPISO (El Paso Interreligious Sponsoring Organization - http://www.industrialareasfoundation.org/iafaffiliates/iafaffiliatessw.htm), over 10 years of hard work with governmental (state, county, and city) entities to get water to several colonias in an area of east El Paso. There are dozens more colonias in El Paso County alone, not including the rest of the Texas border. Getting city water to rural areas is EXPENSIVE and TIME CONSUMING. It is an enormous project with outrageous economic costs! The Texas government’s “answer” to this has also been outrageous.
        Texas legislators know that there is not enough funding to put city water in every rural community along the border; therefore, it is beneficial (to the State) to reduce population densities in colonias so that it becomes no longer cost-effective to put water where only a few houses exist. This lessens the load for the State in way of water projects and state funded programs, and supposedly “improves” the lives of the people by bringing them closer to health facilities, the “clean” city water (thereby promoting the monopoly of the municipal water system).
The social structural factors involved in this also affect the electric companies, because it puts them at the front lines, and as direct liaison between the state laws and the residents, while not requiring the electric companies to inform the residents of what losses could occur if their electricity goes off. In return, it puts the electric companies at risk of being sued for negligence, and it takes away their business, even when electric drop poles may exist on the residents’ properties. Many land sales businesses and realtors have also lost business because they cannot sell certain properties, nor resale them later if they are abandoned and/or repossessed. Lawsuits have occurred over this, but the state usually prevails… but will it prevail over the thousands of people and families who have been harmed, if they come together to fight for their rights? Lauer and Lauer (2008) have said, concerning power and inequality: “People are not powerless, particularly when they organize” (p. 258). This is what I am doing – locating and organizing the people – especially since many of the disadvantaged do not know their rights, and feel powerless against those who make these laws that imprison them.
        Others have done the same. Dudley Althaus of the Houston Chronicle (2008) interviewed a colonia resident from south Texas who got involved in organizing her neighborhood: “Angered by her poor neighborhood's conditions and urged to do something about them, [Maria] Soto became a foot soldier in the 1980s for Valley Interfaith, a group of community organizers anchored in the Roman Catholic parishes along the Texas border with Mexico … Spawned under the tutelage of the left-leaning Industrial Areas Foundation, the group's community organizers first targeted the lack of drinking water and other services in the colonias. Today, with conditions improved in many neighborhoods, the organizers have turned their focus on other aspects of life in poor communities - health care, education, job training.”
        Supported by the state ‘colonia’ laws, which are designed to bring rural residents back into the cities, El Paso has responded in an apparently fruitful endeavor to revitalize the downtown area via the Brownfields Redevelopment Project. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) “El Paso cannot afford to continue stretching public infrastructure further from the city's center. In response to urban sprawl, the city and the El Paso Empowerment Zone Corporation have entered into a partnership to create the El Paso Brownfields Redevelopment Project.” (2002, 2). Many of the downtown area’s poor, and those who have had multi-generational businesses there, feel helpless against this redevelopment project. There have been efforts to squelch the project, but to no avail. They have come to realize that “community development, without the ‘community,’ is not community development at all” (quote from Anthropologist, Dr. Gina Nunez-Mchiri, University of Texas at El Paso).
        One of the reasons the city of El Paso wants to revitalize the downtown area is for tourism and to cut down on the crime in the area, as well as give a fresh new look to the buildings and businesses (even though they are kicking out many of the older businesses to accomplish this task). Crime and poverty are often linked. The downtown area is also just blocks away from the Mexico border bridge, where people cross to do business with the cheaper stores. Certainly there will be a chaotic effect when construction is occurring in those areas. It is unknown yet whether crime rates will rise, or fall, or rise and then fall, or some other scenario. The poorer businesses surely have lost money and goods occasionally due to the downtrodden “look” of the downtown area at the border, but what will the economic cost of these crimes be once the revitalization project is finished, and those higher-cost businesses get robbed (Lauer and Lauer, 2008, p. 109). Crime, ultimately, affects the profits and losses of a business, and also the wages that the owner gives to his/her employees. Crime costs the employees, too, because the owner cannot afford to pay them more.
        Social controls, such as the law (police) get involved when crimes are committed. This social structural factor plays a part in the economic condition of the area. El Paso County Sheriff’s Department has a tall building downtown that serves as the county jail; however, even with the supposed “low crime” in El Paso, there were so many people in jail that they had to build an entire new Sheriff’s Complex and Jail on the far east side of town. I did an ethnographic study and interviewed an El Paso man (anonymous) in 2007 and he said that he had been in jail many, many times over the years (and continues criminal activities), and that the two main problems in the local jail were 1) the food was of poor quality and too-small amounts (not enough to sustain a man, let alone a larger/taller man), and 2) the newer prison guards had bad attitudes, were controlling, and treated the inmates like dogs, sometimes threatening and even beating them (he said the older prison guards who had been working there treated inmates with respect, and received respect back from them).
        There are obviously dehumanization tactics occurring in the jail(s). Treating inmates with little or no respect and beating them, and inadequately feeding them (another quality of life issue) does little to help rehabilitate the inmates, so that when they get out, their chances for recidivism are higher. Another problem is that there are no real Rehab programs. There needs to be a study of Rehab programs with high success rates and then imitate/implement them locally. Other measures in the jails may help lower recidivism rates, decrease crime, and help the economy and wage earnings. Programs that help inmates with reintegration within society, may include job training, ESL (English as a Second Language), typing and computer skills, vocational training, County run wrap-around counseling programs (health and mental health are a main part of the directive for El Paso County), to name a few. According to Lauer and Lauer (2008) “… people in jails have high rates of infections and chronic diseases, substance abuse, mental health problems, and suicide rates that are far higher than those in prisons” and “Far from serving as a deterrent to further crime… jail or prison… becomes a training ground for making criminals more competent and more committed to a life of crime” (p. 111). Rehabilitative services and programs are essential to getting people back into society in a positive way.
        Organizations and religious ministries can help with some of the possible solutions above, including more funding for Project ARRIBA – a “living wage” program of $11/hour (minimum) for the poorest of the poor to get schooled for high-wage, high-demand jobs in El Paso. Project ARRIBA’s ROI (Return on Investment) amount has shown that “In 2006 Project ARRIBA's Implied Benefit/Cost ratio is 28.46, which means that for every $1.00 invested $28.46 is returned to the community” (2007, ROI bullet #6). This has a proven track record of taking those in poverty and elevating their socioeconomic status, and education levels (education is directly related to lowering prejudice, crime rate reduction, and increased wage earnings), so there are ultimately social benefits, as well as economic benefits.
        Wage earnings for those who don’t qualify for Project ARRIBA have a harder time, even if they are U.S. citizens. Some people claim illegal immigrants come and hide in border areas (and sometimes live in rural colonias) and are taking jobs that Americans could or should have. However, I’ve heard others say things like, “Illegals only do the jobs that most Americans refuse to do; they work harder, longer, and for far less pay.” The public has also voiced their concerns that it is the businesses that hire undocumented workers who are to blame, and that they should be fined. Border security seems to be a hot topic for many who live here.
Some are concerned that the border fence (wall) that’s being built won’t help at all in the economic situation. Randal Archibold and Julia Preston wrote in an article (May 22, 2008): “’No thought was given methodically to this idea of the fence,’ Patricio Ahumada Jr., the mayor of Brownsville, Texas, said Friday in Washington, where the Texas Border Coalition filed its lawsuit. ‘Homeland Security is using it to give a false sense of security to middle America that it will keep illegal immigrants and terrorists out, but it just isn't true’” (p. 5).
        No matter what the cause for El Paso’s economic hardships, whether it be the closeness to Mexico and immigration issues, or a high drop-out rate in high school (low education levels in general, including college), or other factors not considered here, there is no doubt that wages and race/ethnicity have a part to play in the economic situation of border life, regardless of what those races/ethnicity happen to be. Due to El Paso’s low wages, segregated labor market, gendered division of labor, a high minority population, and sociocultural factors within Mexican-American families, the poor, regardless of their backgrounds, are likely to remain marginalized for a long time to come, even though the city is making an effort towards economic growth within the city limits. Hopefully those on the fringes of society will not be forgotten… hopefully they will band together, and organize themselves, stand together, and fight for their rights.  



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