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Senior citizens feel the pinch as budgets tighten

Updated: 2012-07-30 23:39
By Chen Jia in Stockton, California ( China Daily)

Early every morning, Chinese-American Ma Shunchang goes to Jene Wah, the biggest senior citizen's center for Chinese residents in the northern California city of Stockton. He reads a Chinese newspaper and plays poker or mahjong with other seniors before lunch.

But on this particular day, he is not in the mood to enjoy afternoon activities and hurries home early.

The 75-year-old senses the anger on the streets of Stockton, where crime, unemployment and suicide rates continue to climb in what is now the largest US city ever to file for bankruptcy protection.

In the past three years, the city has dealt with a total of $90 million in deficits partly by making drastic cuts in the police and fire departments, even as residents say they must deal with frequent break-ins and robberies, a climbing murder rate, homelessness and plummeting property values.

Senior citizens feel the pinch as budgets tighten

Chinese-Americans play mahjong in a senior citizen's center in the northern California city of Stockton. Chen Jia / China Daily

"In recent months, some robberies even took place during the daytime. Some of my Chinese friends were robbed of their gold necklaces on the street," said Esther Tse, executive director of the senior center, who moved to Stockton with her husband and daughter from Hong Kong about six years ago.

The government used to help pay for the lunches of about 1,500 people who came to the senior center every month, and every senior needed to pay just $1.75, she said.

Now the number of seniors coming has decreased to about 600, and the government has reduced the center's budget, she said.

While bankruptcy may embarrass a city and make it less attractive to businesses and investors, Stockton officials believe it might be a quick way to a return to better fiscal health, and force bondholders, creditors and unions to sit down and negotiate changes.

"We can't reduce our services anymore, and we cannot reduce police and firefighters and services like that, so we were forced to file for bankruptcy" on June 28, Connie Cochran, the city's public information officer, told China Daily at Stockton City Hall.

"We have been working with our largest creditors and our bond companies. We will be working with (the US) Bankruptcy Court to negotiate the debt we have and to recover from this," she said. "It might take a few years."

She said the budget crisis is related to the city's general fund, whose expenses include police, fire protection and administrative functions. The general fund gets its money in part from local and sales taxes.

While residents can see the increase in violent crime, discontinued recreation programs and reduced library hours, Stockton still offers services such as water and road construction. Those funds are not part of the city's financial woes because government cannot use that money to solve its general fund problems, Cochran said.

"When we have fewer services, it is difficult for our citizens. Government bankruptcy can protect the services we provide and not have to reduce the money further," Cochran said.

She said the city still offers businesses a good location, with its freeways, waterways and ports. "The challenge we are facing right now is when people and business come, they want a quality of life for their employees," Cochran said.

John Reynolds, executive director of Stockton Shelter for the Homeless, said that of the 1,123 people who have sought help in the shelter this year, only 28 were Asian-Americans.

According to registration data, 38 percent of the homeless in the shelter are Hispanic and 30 percent are black. "Asians account for only 1 percent, and most of them are Cambodians or Vietnamese," Reynolds said. "Chinese are not in our shelter."

The government bankruptcy filing hasn't affected Chinese-Americans' lives in the short term because they don't overspend on their credit cards, they save money and offset their small salary by living economically. But keeping a job has been the biggest concern for Chinese-Americans in Stockton.

Esther's husband used to have a job in the prison department in Sacramento, California's capital, but he was laid off two years ago. "Many government hourly jobs are lost as a way to keep more people employed, but everyone has lower pay because of the reduced hours," she said.

Zhang Qidong contributed to this story

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