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Impoverished Spirits in a Land of Plenty : It’s Time to Look Out for One Another as Well as No. 1

In a county of million-dollar homes and seemingly endless sunshine, of sparkling Pacific waters and sandy beaches, it is easy to ignore the poor.

But despite the averting of eyes by too many people, have-nots do populate Orange County. Their numbers have increased; their lot in life has worsened. Too often they are stripped of dignity. Orange County residents say it is the job of charities, not the government, to help the poor, yet too few give money to charities. It is easier to let someone else do it; if someone else does not do it, so what?

Last week’s Times series on poverty in a land of plenty portrayed a county too often mean-spirited. There are many residents who do help their neighbors, but charitable workers, and statistics, say much more needs to be done. Unwillingness to assist those in need diminishes a community; it erodes a psychic glue cementing society, encouraging instead a harmful “everyone for himself” spirit.

The problems of poverty in Orange County are not new. But the recession of the 1990s and the bankruptcy of 11 months ago have made things worse. People have lost jobs and, sometimes, their housing. Even those with jobs grew more worried; where once they might have increased contributions to a church, synagogue or nonprofit group, now they have cut back or stopped giving. Yet other communities that experienced similar problems have been more willing to help their neighbors.

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For instance, San Diego County has an estimated 7,272 urban homeless, and beds for nearly half of them. In Orange County, the homeless are far more numerous, the beds far fewer. An estimated 12,000 to 15,000 people are without shelter here at some time each month. There are beds for fewer than one of every 12 homeless needing one.

Homelessness is a problem that cries out for a regional solution. Cities that have tried to help the less fortunate, whether through shelters or food kitchens, understandably worry that they will become magnets for others down on their luck. If groups of neighboring cities provided facilities, or money, it would spread the burden.

There is a major need for transitional housing, a place where the poor can live for more than a night but less than a lifetime, a place to call home while getting back on their feet, learning job skills and sending children to school.

Also needed is more affordable housing. High rents in Orange County reflect the desirability of living here, but too often they account for half or more of the income of those with lower-paying jobs.

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While there are many in need, they are too often invisible to other residents. A Times Orange County Poll found that nearly half of those surveyed did not know a poor person by name. More than six in 10 were “not at all” or “not too” worried about becoming poor.

Yet 200,000 of the county’s 2.5 million people live below the federal poverty line, meaning a family of four with an income of $291 a week or less, an incredibly small amount of money for Orange County.

It may be true that the poor will always be with us and that most Orange County residents will be lucky enough never to be counted among them. There is nothing wrong with requiring most welfare recipients to work or limiting the time during which they can receive government assistance.

But the charities willing to help the poor need aid themselves, in bodies and in money. Shutting our eyes to the problem of poverty does no one any good. Helping the less fortunate is part of being a good citizen and having a decent society.

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