The view from Stockton, America's most miserable city

Obama's 100 days: The Presidents's economic stimulus package may have made headlines, but so far it has had little impact on the people who voted for him. Guy Adams reports on a Californian town hit particularly hard by the credit crunch
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The Independent US

The story that has left Tina Blanco standing in the long line outside a Californian food bank will be depressingly familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the volatile collision of greed, recklessness, and sheer bad luck that has prompted America's greatest financial crisis since the Great Depression.

A surgical technician, who spent 10 years commuting from Stockton, a once prosperous city in the San Joaquin Valley, to San Francisco's General Hospital 90-odd minutes away, her life was turned upside down in 2006, when she discovered a lump in her left breast which turned out to be malignant. Treatment for cancer left the 45-year-old single mother of two unable to work. Her income, which had been a comfortable $77,000-a-year (£52,000), was halved to $33,000 under her employer's insurance plan. Soon she found herself struggling to meet payments on a $1,650-a-month mortgage.

Today, Ms Blanco is living the nightmare of negative equity. The three-bedroom, blue-shuttered home in one of Stockton's leafier neighbourhoods, which she bought for $210,000 (£150,000) six years ago, and at the height of the property boom was valued at $300,000, is now worth $150,000. Her debts against it are $185,000. Now five months in arrears, she faces imminent eviction.

If Barack Obama is to set America on a path out of recession, then he's going to have to start making a difference to people like Tina Blanco. The President's ambitious economic stimulus package has dominated political debate during his first 100 days in office. Now he must show that it can also change lives.

Ms Blanco is in urgent need of the help. On Wednesday, for the first time in her adult life, she swallowed her pride, grabbed a couple of cardboard boxes, and drove to Stockton Food Bank, where parcels of mostly out-of-date food, donated by either supermarkets or local well-wishers, are distributed to anyone willing to brave the hour-long queue.

"I feel like this is the last pit-stop. I have hit rock bottom," she says, while volunteers filled her boxes with tired-looking produce. "People here are nice, but it's a blow to my pride. I feel let down: I always played by the rules. I just got unlucky.

"I could declare myself bankrupt. But I've been cancer-free now for six months, and I want to get back to work and pay my debts off. My bank's not interested in working out a payment plan, though, and I don't get help from the government. There's an income bracket, and I fall into it, where people are too rich to be helped, but too poor to afford to live."

For now, she is prepared to give her President the benefit of the doubt. "Obama is a likeable man," says Ms Blanco. "I voted for him. But my patience will not last forever. So far, he's been helping banks, and car companies, and executives at AIG. When's he going to help the little guy?"

President Obama must also demonstrate that his injection of taxpayers' cash can help places like Stockton. House prices tripled here between 1998 and 2005, thanks to families seeking an affordable bolt-hole within a couple of hours of San Francisco's bay area. But last year, they dropped 39 per cent. They are forecast to fall by a further third in 2009. Stockton has just under 300,000 residents, and isn't used to being in the spotlight. But it recently suffered a blow to civic pride when it was declared "America's most miserable city" by Forbes magazine, in a survey that took into account factors such as crime, unemployment, tax rates, prosperity and commute times.

In truth, Stockton didn't look very miserable this week, as it shimmered in a Californian heatwave. But the signs of trouble aren't far away if you know where to look. Labourers stand on street corners, in search of casual employment. Their presence belies the local unemployment rate, which recently hit a staggering 16.3 per cent. Boarded-up houses and yellowing front lawns on almost every block bear witness to the fact that Stockton has the nation's worst foreclosure rate: 16,000 homes – roughly 10 per cent of the city's entire stock – are in some level of foreclosure.

At the Stockton Food Bank, volunteers report a 20 per cent increase in demand, mostly fuelled by "middle-class" people like Ms Blanco, or Shawn Dee Cooper, a 27-year-old student at Delta College who would normally spend the summer earning $110-a-day with a nursing agency, but has so far been unable to secure a single shift. "I had to apply for food stamps, but it's going to take a month to process my forms. In the meantime, I've been told to come here," she says. "I've been through ups and downs, like anyone else, but I never thought it would come to this.

"I voted for Barack Obama because I thought he'd help people like me: the working poor," she adds. "For now, I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt. Hopefully some of that money will trickle down. I just hope it starts happening soon."

At the nearby Homeless Shelter, which provides food and lodging for the county's large population of 2,000 homeless people, occupancy is also up 20 per cent, according to the manager John Reynolds. He says: "We see a lot of people who have been renting homes, and their landlords go into foreclosure. They have no idea, until one day the bailiffs knock on the door telling them they've got a fortnight to clear out. The landlord has already taken their next month's rent, and can't pay their deposit back. They're suddenly left with nothing."

Many residents have also been driven to ruin by health problems. Among them is Meeka Kanstra, a grandmother who fell on hard times after she was diagnosed with auto-immune disease and forced to leave her job. "I've applied for social security benefits, but they're still processing my claim," she says. "Until it comes through, I'm stuck here. I've gone through my life savings, lost my apartment and my car. This country needed someone young and energetic like Obama. Even without the economy, our healthcare system is broken, and needs fixing. It's ruining lives. I know diabetics who can't even afford their insulin."

The first task facing President Obama, then, is to stem the bleeding caused by the housing crisis. In cities such as Stockton, this means that "shovel-ready" infrastructure projects, which will employ thousands of locals, must actually get underway.

The second, perhaps trickier task of his Presidency will be to change a national culture that offers few safety nets, and to reform a broken healthcare system that has let down Meeka Kanstra, and millions like her.

"If he can fix that, and I truly believe he can, he could be a great president," she says.

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