Poverty in a Land of Plenty : Assistance: Life is getting tougher for Orange County’s poor. With some notable exceptions, social services are shrinking and hostility is growing.
The poor have always been with us. But Orange County doesn’t believe they have to be, and its residents--embittered by bankruptcy and emboldened by their political leaders--have begun to treat the poor with a hostility reserved for intruders.
With imaginative restrictions, shortages of low-cost housing and a flinty sense of charity, some Orange County communities have gone to extraordinary lengths to make life difficult for the poor--or to make them as invisible as possible.
From ordinances designed to rid streets of the homeless to Proposition 187’s effort to stem illegal immigration, Orange County in many ways has become ground zero in the escalating national effort to cut back help for the poor.
“Orange County is the community of the future,” said Harry Simon, staff attorney for Legal Aid of Orange County, “and it doesn’t have a place for all these untidy people with their untidy lives.”
A simmering anger permeates Orange County, a sentiment that the poor are viewed as lazy and undeserving. Or as immoral for having children too young and too often. Or as illegal immigrants without legitimate claim to benefits. Or as a burden on hard-working people who have come here to find safe neighborhoods and good schools.
“We see the worst of this poverty issue,” said Santa Ana community activist Debbie McEwen, who lives in the city’s historic French Park district. “We see huge families sapping the neighborhood and sapping resources. We see young, strong men dealing drugs, doing drugs on the street corner. Just sitting in my living room, I watch this happen daily.”
Six years ago, in a series about the poor, The Times asked its readers, “Does Orange County Care?” The answer: Not much. And that was before the anxiety and economic distress brought on by bankruptcy and base closings, by recession and corporate downsizing, by the continued creep of urban ills such as gang violence.
A three-month examination shows that, despite Orange County’s wealth, its residents’ dealings with the poor today are a tale of rising fear, resentment and annoyance at their presence.
* Despite its prodigious need for low-wage workers to mow lawns, wash dishes and sell fast food, Orange County has the nation’s most acute shortage of affordable housing. In fact, more than $26 million designated for low-income housing sits idle.
* There are just 945 shelter beds for more than 12,000 homeless, a ratio that lags substantially behind communities of similar size.
* Despite the county’s overall wealth, annual per-capita giving to nonprofit groups here is only 14 cents, sixth-lowest of the 85 metropolitan areas studied by Princeton University in a 1993 report.
* It is now a crime in some places for the homeless to sleep outside. Fullerton was first to ban camping in public, but the idea spread after August, 1990, when Santa Ana police arrested 63 homeless people in a raid. Costa Mesa, Tustin, Orange and Laguna Hills all have banned homeless camping. In April, the California Supreme Court upheld the approach.
* To pay for recovery from Orange County’s bankruptcy, health and other services largely aimed at helping the poor have been slashed by $55 million, forcing hundreds of layoffs.
* Complaining of overcrowding and overburdened municipal services, residents in some places have insisted on the aggressive enforcement of building codes that prevent families from living together so they can afford Orange County’s high living costs.
About 200,000 county residents fall below the federal poverty standard of $15,150 a year for a family of four, according to the 1990 census. Many experts believe the total has risen sharply in the past five years.
About 213,700 of the county’s 590,490 families--36% of the total--earn less than $40,000 a year, according to figures calculated from the 1990 census by Bill Gayk, Orange County’s former chief demographer. They are considered “low income” under guidelines established by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development because they earn 80% or less of the county’s median family income of $51,167 a year.
About 105,600 of these families--or 18% of all county families--live on less than $25,000 a year, the figures show. With incomes of 50% or less of the county’s median family income, they are considered “very low income” under the HUD guidelines.
Yet in a Times Orange County Poll taken for this series, nearly half the county’s residents said they don’t know a single poor person by name. Two-thirds said they have never experienced poverty for a year or more, and more than six in 10 are not worried about becoming poor in the future.
While Orange County residents may be harder on the poor than their counterparts in many areas, said Supervisor William G. Steiner, the county can point with pride to some projects and programs that relieve pain and misery. The network that distributes food to the poor is considered a national model; Orangewood Children’s Home was built almost entirely with private donations.
“There are a lot of vulnerable people and it’s easy to focus on the tremendous unmet needs of the county,” Steiner said. “You can be critical of government in terms of not allocating enough resources, but within Orange County there is very strong nonprofit commitment to supporting the homeless, the poor and the disenfranchised, and that helps to balance out the mean-spirited view.”
The county’s poor receive more than $300 million a year in various forms of public assistance, most of it paid for with federal funds, and more than $200 million a year in health-care benefits, half paid by the state and half by the federal government.
Anti-camping ordinances and other restrictions, say those who must enforce them, are necessary to maintain public order and preserve life and safety. “Cities have to have the ability to be able to go and preserve order for the majority within the city,” said Santa Ana Police Capt. Dan McCoy.
Tough love, county residents overwhelmingly believe, is the correct approach to public assistance. Only a third believe government should be primarily responsible for the poor, according to the poll. More than half believe nonprofit agencies, churches, families and the poor themselves should handle it.
“I really think it comes down to individuals or private charity,” said John Studdert, 29, of Laguna Niguel. “Government doesn’t do a good job. It tends to keep people in the poverty role.”
In a job and working is where the poor belong, said Eloise Anderson, director of California’s Department of Social Services, whose life is an example of that virtue. Anderson, who once pumped gasoline to avoid public assistance, believes “the anger people have about welfare is justified.”
“There are tons of people like me, looking at people who are on the public dole, who’ve had it up to here,” she said. “Somebody is always telling us how we’re being selfish because we don’t want to give up our money to people we don’t think deserve it.
“When a single mom goes to work, she pays taxes so the lady next door [on welfare] can stay home,” she added. “Most single mothers in this country work every day. Why should we pay for somebody to stay home and take care of their kids when we can’t stay home and take care of ours?”
At the national level, the county’s congressional delegation has helped lead the fight to reduce social services and shed people from welfare rolls. Although the federal cuts are still being debated, state and county officials expect welfare grants and food stamps will eventually be cut, health care for the poor and indigent will be reduced, and some education, prevention and training programs will be eliminated altogether.
“Politicians have made the poor and programs for the poor the new enemy of America,” said Kristan Schlichte, executive director of Catholic Charities of Orange County. “Today, to be poor is seen as immoral. If you’re poor, the word ‘burden’ is automatically attached to you in this county.”
Toughness trickles down, said Columbia University sociologist Herbert J. Gans, whose book, “The War Against the Poor,” was released in September. “The poor are always the first ones who are punished because they count the least,” Gans said in an interview.
“Why now? We need a new scapegoat to explain to ourselves what’s happening in the economy,” Gans added. “The official statistics don’t look too bad, but many people are hurting. Their job security is gone or threatened.”
Still, Orange County is a place of spectacular contrasts between wealth and poverty. The top 6% of county residents earn more than $100,000 a year. At the bottom, though, are enough seriously down-and-out to more than populate the city of Huntington Beach.
Overall, 8.4% of the population in the county lives below the federal poverty level, according to the 1990 census, an increase from 7.5% in 1968, when a UC Irvine study showed that the county’s “disadvantaged [are] trapped in a persistent web of poverty.”
Yet most of the county doesn’t see the poor, a blindness that hasn’t diminished in the nearly 30 years since the UCI study found that “daily transportation patterns” permitted most residents to remain “blissfully unaware of the disadvantaged in our midst.”
More than half those responding to The Times’ survey said they “hardly ever or never go to the poor areas.” Two-thirds of South County residents almost never travel through a poor neighborhood.
“Go to the South County and think of what life would be like without a car,” said Simon of Legal Aid. “There are no sidewalks. No storefronts. Everything is geared toward individuals who live in houses in their planned communities, who go in their fancy cars to fancy shopping centers. You’re supposed to fit in, and poor people don’t fit in.”
Although most of the county’s poor live in a handful of North County cities, someone receives the most common forms of welfare--Aid to Families with Dependent Children, food stamps or Medi-Cal health care assistance--in virtually every ZIP code, from 92625 (Corona del Mar), where the median home is worth $700,000, to 92703 (Santa Ana), where it’s worth $165,000.
“So what should we do with the poor? We have no islands to ship them to, no institutions anymore,” said Karen McGlinn, executive director of Share Our Selves in Costa Mesa. “That’s why so many of us have moved to these beautiful walled communities we have here. We want to shut the poor out.”
The county’s 500 walled communities “contribute to a fortress mentality and a perverse attitude toward poverty,” said Stanford University professor Dale Maharidge, who has written extensively about poverty and homelessness. “Many people with money are afraid of the poor, especially if they come from another country, and they seek to blame them for everything.”
The often visceral feelings here about immigrants, whose ubiquitous presence rubs hard against the vision that brought many earlier settlers to the county, gave birth to Proposition 187, an idea that originated here. County voters enthusiastically endorsed the proposal to deny all but emergency health and social services to illegal immigrants last November by 67% to 33%--one of the largest margins in the state.
No one knows for certain how many illegal immigrants live in Orange County, but no one disputes that many receive welfare benefits and health care. There are about 5,000 Orange County children born to undocumented mothers receiving AFDC payments in Orange County, and Gov. Pete Wilson’s office estimates that throughout the state some 300,000 illegal immigrants receive Medi-Cal at a cost to state taxpayers of $400 million annually.
“You have a community culture here that is premised on the idea that we are not Los Angeles, we are the suburban golden land,” said Sid L. Gardner, director of the Center for Collaboration for Children at Cal State Fullerton. “Then you layer on top of that the [idea] in Orange County life that if someone is poor, it’s clearly their fault or they’re invaders in the golden land and they ought to pack up and go home.”
Notions about invaders hurt local charities that serve the poor. “People often tell me that they think nobody should contribute to this organization because we give to illegals,” said McGlinn of SOS.
But some taxpayers, such as Steven Anderson, a 47-year-old Huntington Beach real estate agent, refuse to support immigrants just because they’re here. Anderson, who supported Proposition 187, believes “it’s sad that in Southern California we have a constant supply of fresh new poor who are bringing us closer and closer to Third World conditions. I don’t enjoy having their living standards and language thrown upon us as if we have to love it, accept it and pay for it.”
The public’s feelings about poverty often lead to misconceptions about welfare that trouble veterans such as Angelo Doti, the county’s director of financial assistance, who has watched assistance programs evolve for 32 years. One of the most common is that welfare is easily obtained and is enough to sustain a decent lifestyle. It isn’t.
“The average person has no idea how little is paid in benefits and how deep in abject poverty you really have to be to qualify for these programs,” Doti said. “They are demeaning. They are means-tested. We use police to investigate.”
The county provides significant amounts of public assistance, most of it paid for by federal funds. Some 120,000 county residents receive AFDC, 70,000 of them children. Fully 29% of AFDC recipients also work, receiving grants adjusted downward according to the their wages, and more are working every year. More than 150,000 people a month receive food stamps and more than 116,000 receive Medi-Cal.
But if welfare is a lifestyle for some, the existence it supports is meager. Recipients must be practically penniless to get it. Everything a welfare family owns can be worth no more than $1,500. The monthly AFDC grant for a mother and two children, which will soon be reduced, is $607, plus $240 in food stamps.
Another common misconception is that teen-agers are reproducing wildly and swelling welfare rolls with their babies. But in the county, there are only 648 parents ages 13 to 19 on welfare. And 513 are in school. In California, teen parents who apply for AFDC now must be working on their diplomas and enrolled in classes that teach appropriate child care and family planning, or suffer a financial penalty.
The working poor, too, often feel the sting of policies aimed at bigger social problems. One of the largest is crowding.
In order to afford the rents in Orange County, 10,000 to 20,000 poor families share their apartments or houses, doubling and tripling up with non-family members or single males, estimated Allen P. Baldwin, executive director of the nonprofit Orange County Community Housing Corp.
Baldwin said the crowding problem is so severe his agency often won’t agree to rehabilitate some apartment buildings because of the number of families who would be displaced.
Few communities have suffered as much overcrowding as Santa Ana. Since 1980, the number of residents living below the federal poverty level, most of them Latinos, has doubled there, swelling occupancy of apartments and houses in neighborhoods near downtown and beyond, said Bruce Dunams, the city’s community preservation supervisor. Overcrowding, he said, “has put a strain on our schools, our police, our Fire Department, our infrastructure and everything else.”
Santa Ana has the greatest density per dwelling in the county, 4.2 people; in fact, no other community in the county exceeds 3, according to a survey by the state Department of Finance.
In response, the city “established a far-reaching code enforcement program in 1984 intended to change the central city’s demography,” researcher Lisbeth Haas wrote in the 1991 book “Post-suburban California, The Transformation of Orange County Since World War II.” As a result, “Overcrowding became a major political issue and a code word for expressing anti-immigrant and anti-Mexican sentiment in the City Council meetings and during municipal elections.”
Dunams said his staff “is only concerned about life safety issues, and not politics, and certainly not race.”
Nonetheless, the strong feelings about immigrants and crowding have led to Santa Ana ordinances to limit garage sales to four weekends a year, to control street vendors, to prevent the storage of inappropriate items on patios, and to halt the public drying of laundry.
Ada Garcia and her family discovered how deep those feelings run when “community preservation investigators” showed up at her apartment in September and cited her for drying several pairs of jeans on the patio. Garcia, whose family had received earlier warnings, was sentenced to 21 days of community service and ordered to pay $51.
“They expect us to be like them and have a nice big house,” Garcia said, “but we don’t.”
But the larger issue, said McEwen, the community activist and the person who complained about Garcia, is that Santa Ana needs a way to control “density,” particularly among Latino immigrants.
“As it is now, they just keep coming and coming and coming.”
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THE POOR AMONG US / A five-part series
TODAY: A low-income single mother of three struggles to raise her family as the county becomes more hostile to the poor.
MONDAY: An acute shortage of shelter beds and affordable housing makes Orange County’s homeless more likely to live on the street.
TUESDAY: Traditionally reluctant to give to the poor, Orange County’s residents face more pressure to provide for them as government withdraws from the effort.
WEDNESDAY: A Times Orange County poll shows that county residents do not notice the poor among them and believe government should play a limited role in caring for them.
THURSDAY: Eight county officials, experts and community leaders debate poverty issues in a Times Orange County edition round-table discussion.
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By the Numbers
THE BOTTOM LINE
Number in Orange County below poverty line: 200,000*
Number of homeless: 12,000-15,000
Number of low-income families: 213,700**
Number of very low-income families: 105,600***
Aid to Families with Dependent Children recipients (September, 1995): 116,553
Food stamp recipients (September, 1995): 150,147
General relief recipients (September, 1995): 2,871
* Federal poverty line for a family of four is $15,150 per year
** Earn less than 80% of county median family income of $51,167
*** Earn less than 50% of median family income
Of the state’s most populous counties, Orange County ranked last in indigent medical and mental health care per-capita spending in fiscal year 1992-93, the most recent data available:
Los Angeles: $195.10
Santa Clara: $159.70
San Bernardino: $94.20
San Diego: $88.20
The two largest categories of assistance to the poor in Orange County have continued to rise for five years. Average monthly cases:
Aid to Families with Dependent Children
PROFILE OF THE POOR
Roughly 8.5% of Orange County’s population is at or below the poverty level. Here’s a demographic profile:
Younger than 19: 35%
65 and older: 6%
Less than high school: 65%
High school grad: 13%
Some college: 16%
College grad: 6%
Employment status (16 and older)
Not in labor force: 43%
Do You Know?
1. Why do homeless people in Orange County say they are homeless?
2. How many emergency shelters accept families without prior notice?
3. The county has 945 shelter beds for 12,000 to 15,000 homeless, and 93 units of transitional housing. What are the comparable figures for Seattle and King County, Wash., considered to have some of the best homeless services in the United States?
Answers on Monday
Sources: Orange County Health Care Agency, Orange County Social Services Agency, Times Mirror surveys, Times Orange County Poll