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TIMES ORANGE COUNTY POLL : Poverty Seen as a Sign of Personal Weakness : Government’s role should be limited in caring for the less fortunate, residents say. The poor are largely invisible to many.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Orange County residents do not notice the poor among them, do not consider poverty a pressing issue locally and believe government should play a limited role in caring for society’s least fortunate, according to a Times Orange County Poll.

In fact, many in Orange County see poverty as a symptom of personal, moral weakness, the poll shows. People are poor because they don’t want to work, because welfare pays better, because they lack morals and values, or have been through a divorce or other family breakdown, a majority of poll respondents said.

“People here believe the poor in large part have brought their problems on themselves,” said Mark Baldassare, who conducted the random telephone survey of 600 adult residents. “And there is a very narrow vision in Orange County of what government is supposed to do to help them.”

Only 1% of poll respondents described poverty, the poor, or the homeless as the most serious issue facing Orange County. More than half said the county’s most significant problem is the financial crisis stemming from its bankruptcy, while 15% named crime.

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Poverty, the survey makes clear, is viewed through the prism of personal experience. Nearly 80% of those polled described themselves as middle- or upper-middle class, and 65% said they have never experienced poverty for a year or more. More than six in 10 said they were “not at all” or “not too” worried about becoming poor in the future.

“Poverty in Orange County is no problem, for myself or for anyone I know,” said John Studdert, 29, a Laguna Niguel resident. Studdert, who grew up in the county, said no one in his family has ever been on welfare.

About 200,000 people in Orange County live below the federal poverty line of $15,150 a year for a family of four, though many experts believe the total has risen substantially in the five years since the U.S. Census revealed those statistics. About 36% of the county’s 590,490 families are considered “low income,” and 18% are classified as “very low income” under federal guidelines, according to Bill Gayk, the county’s former chief demographer.

Still, for many Orange County residents, the poor tend to be anonymous, the poll found. Nearly half of those surveyed said they did not know a single poor person in the county by name.

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On second thought, though, maybe they do.

Chris Bisceglia, 18, of Lake Forest at first said he knew no one he considered poor. But then he remembered a man who has been living out of his car, parked near the coffeehouse where they both work.

“He’s not on welfare,” said Bisceglia, adding that his colleague works at least 40 hours a week. “He’s a decent guy, trying his best. Me, I think I’d go crazy. He can’t even recline in his car seats.”

The poll also revealed the economic segregation in the county. Five in 10 residents said they never or hardly ever travel through neighborhoods where people appear to be living below the poverty level. The percentage was even higher for South County residents, many of whom live in master-planned communities; 68% said they never or rarely venture into the county’s poorer areas.

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The poll was conducted by Mark Baldassare and Associates from Sept. 7 to Sept. 10. It has a margin of error of plus or minus 4%.

Overall, the survey found Orange County residents in a negative mood about government aid to the poor. Fewer than half believe the government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep, and 57% think welfare recipients have it easy because they can collect benefits without doing anything in return. Two in three believe welfare worsens poverty by making people dependent on government aid.

These views mirror the national trend that prompted Congress this year to begin reforming the welfare system. But the poll results also place Orange County at the leading edge of that trend, indicating that in many ways residents here are even more hostile toward welfare--and its recipients--than those nationwide.

“There is an antipathy to the welfare system here and anger at having to support it,” said Cheryl Katz, Baldassare’s associate.

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Tania Abadjian, 25, was among many poll respondents who said the government should tighten eligibility requirements for aid to the poor, including welfare, unemployment and food stamps. In the poll, 57% favored cutting off aid to legal immigrants until they have been in the United States at least five years.

Abadjian, an administrative secretary who lives in Huntington Beach, said she thinks first of immigrants when asked to describe the county’s poor, making her among 38% of the residents who said they believe immigrants and minorities make up the largest group living below the poverty line in Orange County.

She said she also suspects that many welfare recipients actually hold jobs, cheating the taxpayers and defrauding the government. “People these days, they know the government is going to support them and not even check if they’re working,” she said.

For instance, Abadjian said, her aunt recently waited in a grocery store line behind a woman who wore flashy diamond and gold jewelry and then produced food stamps to pay her bill. “My aunt raised a stink about it,” she said. “It pissed her off and it pisses me off that I have to work to support people like this. It’s not fair.”

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Janet Kutzler, 56, of Fullerton, also said the welfare system needs reform.

“Instead of just writing out the checks and sending them, I think [government officials] need to investigate more,” said Kutzler, who works in merchandising for an advertising firm. “At the least, it should be cut off after a certain number of years.”

Two in three Orange County residents agree, saying that welfare benefits should be cut off for people who have not found a job after two years.

Long-term reliance on welfare payments, Kutzler said, is “like eating Twinkies all your life. People are getting something that’s not doing them any good. They’re not learning how to blend into the world or learning anything that will help them at all.”

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In interviews, several residents said they believe many poor people choose to stay on welfare rather than take the jobs that are available, which are often low-paying, relatively undesirable positions.

“There are lots of jobs out there right now for anyone who wants to work,” said David Pearson, 28, a Dana Point retail manager. “But so many of these people don’t want to ‘lower themselves.’ It’s easier to just mooch off the system.”

Studdert, who owns a carpet cleaning business in Laguna Niguel, said he has trouble finding people willing to take the jobs he offers, which pay an average of $7 an hour. Even those who respond to his ads often want to work just for the day, declining his offers of longer-term employment.

“People complain about the lack of jobs, but I think it’s their choice,” he said. “I think the opportunity’s out there.”

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Kitty LeSage, 46, of Costa Mesa, who offers computer training, said she believes most people want to work but don’t have the skills that are often required. For the small number who actually prefer not to work, she has a solution too.

“I say fine, for them create some sort of hostel. They can sleep there and stand in line for free meals,” LeSage said. “But many of the people out there do want to work; they just don’t have the skills.”

Constance Cortes, 45, said she has tried and failed, repeatedly, to get a job.

Cortes, who has relied on Supplemental Security Income since she was disabled by a stroke seven years ago, said employers routinely turn her down when she tells them she uses a wheelchair. But there are many jobs she could do, she said, including those of a telephone operator or receptionist.

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The mother of two college-age children, Cortes lives in a west Anaheim apartment complex whose residents are mostly low-income, including many elderly and people on welfare. Through programs at her church, she helps distribute food bags to people worse off than herself and writes letters for neighbors who can’t read or write.

Cortes said that while the government does an imperfect job of administering welfare, it is the only entity with the resources to do so. Most businesses and individuals don’t want to become involved, and nonprofit groups can’t do the job alone, she said.

But Cortes said she understands the anger of people who believe the government needs to do a better job of policing welfare fraud, and she favors several of the new restrictions on eligibility.

“I think it’s perfectly reasonable that there be some basic restrictions on welfare,” she said. “My philosophy is that welfare is to help people keep their families together and to get back on their feet again, so there should be some limits on it.”

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Cortes was among about one-third of the residents who said government should bear the major responsibility of caring for Orange County’s poor. An almost equal number said nonprofit groups or religious organizations should shoulder that burden, while 21% said individuals, families and the poor themselves should be responsible for their care.

But while many express the view that private entities should have the main responsibility of looking after the poor, relatively few rank feeding and sheltering the county’s needy as a favorite charitable cause.

Four in 10 say they gave no money to such groups in the last year, while only 20% volunteered any time to the charities during that period. But about 43% said they had stopped to give food or money to a local street person during the last year.

The poll also found that county residents are more likely to view the homeless as substance abusers than as people who have lost their jobs, are mentally ill or have suffered some other misfortune.

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Perhaps not surprisingly, a majority of residents said they strongly favored local ordinances that would make it more difficult for homeless people to camp out in parks and other public places.

Santa Ana’s anti-camping ordinance, passed in 1992 and upheld by the California Supreme Court, makes it a crime punishable by up to six months in jail to store personal belongings or to use a sleeping bag or blanket on streets, sidewalks, parking lots or other public areas.

Abadjian, of Huntington Beach, was among 56% of the residents who said they supported such laws. “If you go to a restaurant and there’s a guy sitting right outside and he’s all dirty and has bugs in his hair, it kind of ruins your appetite,” she said.

Daniel Frasier, 45, of Irvine, said he favors the restrictions because of concerns about both safety and health.

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“Having homeless people camping in parks, well, it raises a concern that there could be a greater frequency of crime because of their status and their need for money to buy food, clothing and other necessities for survival,” said Frasier, a former consultant for an engineering firm who is now completing a law degree. “And assuming the parks don’t have full facilities, I’d be concerned about it from a health standpoint too.”

But Bisceglia, along with 36% of county residents, thinks ordinances such as Santa Ana’s are wrong. “These are people who have nowhere else to go. What are they supposed to do, if we won’t even let them stay in the parks?” he asked.

As young children, Bisceglia and his brother and sister often went with their parents to drop off used clothing to homeless people camping at Featherly Regional Park in Yorba Linda. “You’d wish you could give them more and they’d thank you and make you feel good,” he said.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

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How the Poll Was Done

The Times Orange County Poll was conducted by Mark Baldassare and Associates. The random telephone survey of 600 Orange County adult residents was conducted Sept. 7-10 in English and Spanish. The margin of error is plus or minus 4% for the total sample; for subgroups it would be larger. All respondents were offered a guarantee of anonymity, but some agreed to be re-interviewed for these stories.

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

By the Numbers

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Here are some of the results from a Times Orange County Poll on poverty:

WHO’S IS AFFECTED

How many people in Orange County whom you think of as being “poor” do you know by name?

None: 46%

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One or two: 13%

Three or more: 41%

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Have you ever personally experienced poverty for a year or more? (Percent saying yes)

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All: 35%

Income more than $50,000: 28%

Income less than $50,000: 43%

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How worried are you that you might be poor in the future?

Very: 10%

Somewhat: 28%

Not too: 32%

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Not at all: 30%

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For the most part, who are the homeless in Orange County? (according to poll respondents)

Alcoholics/drug addicts: 28%

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People who lost jobs: 21%

Can’t afford housing: 18%

Mentally ill/retarded: 15%

Others: 9%

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Don’t know: 9%

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WELFARE MOOD

Agree or disagree: The government should guarantee every citizen enough to eat and a place to sleep.

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Agree: 46%

Disagree: 52%

Don’t know: 2%

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Tell me if the first statement or second statement comes closer to your own views:

Poor people today have it easy because they can get government benefits without doing anything in return: 53%

Poor people have had hard lives because government benefits don’t go far enough to help them live decently: 32%

Don’t know: 11%

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Do you think the current welfare system:

Changes things for the better by helping people who are unable to support themselves: 23%

Changes things for the worse by making able-bodied people too dependent on government aid: 68%

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Don’t know: 9%

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Do You Know?

1. How many years does it take the average poor person to work his way above the poverty line?

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2. About what proportion of county households at or below the poverty line consist of married couples?

3. What percentage of the county’s 1993 state tax returns were filed by those with adjusted gross incomes of less than $10,000?

ANSWERS THURSDAY

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Answers to Tuesday’s Questions

Q. What percentage of South County residents say they never or rarely venture into the county’s poorer neighborhoods?

A. 68%

Q. True or false: Most county residents would agree that a family of four can get by on an annual household income of $20,000.

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A. False, only 26% think a family of four can get by on $20,000; four in 10 say they would need at least $40,000.

Q. Which group most often comes to mind when county residents are thinking of people who live in poverty: children, the elderly, immigrants/minorities, or single parents?

A. Immigrants/minorities, mentioned by 38%. That’s generally true; half of the county’s poor are Latino.

Sources: Times Orange County Poll, U.S. Census

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