RICHMOND -- LaSaunda Tate didn't have to live in the poorest community in Contra Costa County. The Los Angeles County native is young and smart, and she has built a résumé that spans law firms, political campaigns and high school counseling.
But North Richmond, an unincorporated community flanked by the city of Richmond and a hotbed of violence and poverty, is where Tate has chosen to call home. The only way to alleviate poverty in the East Bay, she decided, is to surround herself with it. The 29-year-old just closed on a new house and moved in last week.
"Part of me got a little afraid and wanted to run away," Tate said. "But this community needs someone like me, who lives in the community, who works in the community, who's been educated and wants to make a change."
She chips away at the community's poverty a bit each day through her job as a financial coach at Brighter Beginnings. She works out of SparkPoint, a financial education center in Richmond. She sees people at their lowest and tries to give them a boost out of a desperate situation.
Tate recently got a boost, too, from none other than President Barack Obama. In his State of the Union address last month, Obama spoke of the many Americans who live in poverty despite working full-time jobs and advocated for raising the federal minimum wage. Since then, programs like SparkPoint, one of 10 United Way-run financial education centers in the Bay Area, have been pushed into the spotlight as weapons critical to beating back poverty. Tate said she feels like Obama's comments validated her work and SparkPoint's mission to cut poverty in half in the Bay Area by 2020.
"The biggest platform is our president. And the fact that he's on board with the kind of work we're doing, we're excited about that," Tate said.
There has been subtle movement since the speech. United Way of the Bay Area met with congressional leaders to discuss poverty-fighting projects like SparkPoint, and elected officials at every level of government have resurrected the debate about raising the minimum wage.
"Minimum wage is not a self-sufficiency wage," said Jim Becker, vice president of community investments at the Richmond Community Foundation, which works with SparkPoint.
Becker said the state's $8-per-hour minimum wage isn't enough in the pricey Bay Area. In Contra Costa, a family with two adults and two children needs more than $69,000 a year to meet the most minimal housing, transportation, health care and food costs, according to the Insight Center for Community Economic Development.
"It sounds like a lot of money," Tate said. "And to some of our families, it is a lot of money. But the cost of living really has increased; that's just bare bones."
Many of Tate's clients have jobs as custodians, contractors or hair stylists, or they work in retail or other service industry roles -- jobs that don't pay enough to cover the Bay Area's high rents, climbing gas and electricity prices, and public transportation costs.
Median household income in Richmond is $55,000, about 9 percent below the statewide number. After shelling out $1,600 a month for a typical three-bedroom apartment, a family with three or four kids would still have a pile of unpaid bills.
That's where Tate comes in. She's helping East Bay residents spend what they earn more wisely.
"You can find a better job, you can increase your credit, but if you don't know how to budget and save, that doesn't mean anything," Tate said. "Because we all know millionaires who have gone broke."
Tate's advice helped De Shawn Kelly break a two-year spell of financial hardship. After his marriage ended in 2011, Kelly -- who was earning about half what his then-wife made -- had to find a way to pay his bills and support his 14-year-old daughter on his $30,000 salary as a maintenance worker in El Cerrito. He was earning more than minimum wage, but Kelly said it was far short of what he needed.
"I don't smoke, I don't drink, I don't shop," he said. "I'm just trying to do the basics."
He started overdrawing his bank account every few weeks, racking up hundreds of dollars in bank fees. He applied for many jobs, but couldn't find more work.
Kelly started meeting with Tate last year and discovered he didn't have a clue how to stick to a budget. He couldn't scrounge up bus fare, for instance, but he spent up to $300 a month on fast food. He made some quick changes in his spending habits.
"Every time I spend, I'm thinking about it," he said. "It's not just me going and throwing money around like I used to. That's only because I know better."
Kelly was hired in February as a maintenance supervisor at the Grand Lake Gardens retirement home in Oakland. With the higher pay and Tate's money-management coaching, Kelly now has a shot at buying a house, a new car and providing more for his daughter.
Not everyone's story has the same happy ending. Tate said many clients will show up once with a mess of debt and don't come back because they're too embarrassed.
Tate will be the first to admit Richmond's problems can't be solved by better household budgets and pinching pennies. But, she said, it's a start.
"I care about this community," she said. "More than most."
Contact Heather Somerville at 925-977-8418. Follow her at Twitter.com/heathersomervil.
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science from UC Berkeley
Lives: North Richmond
Job Title: Financial education coordinator with Brighter Beginnings, an East Bay nonprofit contracted by SparkPoint; started March 2012
Clients served: About 13 a week
Hobbies: Self-proclaimed "arts and crafts freak"; political and social activist
Working on: Campaigns to inform North Richmond residents about what it means to live in an unincorporated community, and to clean up litter around town