Bernice Bojorquez, a single mother of two, felt at ease with the life she was scraping together eight years ago.
Although she lacked job skills, she was earning $10.50 an hour during harvest season to sort watermelon and asparagus inside a Turlock packing plant.
When the rains came or the fields dried up, she went back on welfare and food stamps to cover the rest of her Section 8 rent and to buy groceries.
Bojorquez, who had just ended her marriage, wasn't ashamed or embarrassed about getting caught -- or surviving -- in the government safety net. With two growing kids, she had no other options.
The mother, son and daughter lived on 11 acres in Delhi inside a three-bedroom trailer. It was a quarter-mile from the Merced River, where the children learned to swim. It was a fine place to raise a family, especially compared with their last place, a duplex on Lansing Street in the Loughborough area.
One evening while they were watching television, Bojorquez's 9-year-old daughter, Angelina, announced that she wanted to be just like her mother.
Most parents would smile and feel honored.
"No, daughter," Bojorquez snapped back, "you don't want to be like that."
That idolization shattered the mirror that reflected Bojorquez' life. She had always felt adequate as a parent, but never thought her children should follow her path. They were supposed to climb past her rung on the economic ladder, not reach for it and be satisfied to get there.
She resolved to set a better example for her daughter and son. No more financial aid. No more food stamps. No more seasonal employment.
Bojorquez drew on local resources to break her cycle of poverty that began when she was a child and continued to turn after she became a mother. She's now trying to instill a strong drive and work ethic in her children to make sure their own culture of poverty ended the night Angelina shook the foundations of her world.
As a statistic, she represents one of the 120 Merced County residents each month who've gone from public aid to gainful employment with the help of the government. Despite those successes, Merced County's poverty continues to prosper, pulling more people down as simply living becomes more expensive.
"There is no excuse for anyone going hungry in this county," Human Services Agency director Ana Pagan said. "We feed half the world but we can't feed our own neighbors?"
Her agency, along with dozens of private organizations, is partnering to launch Circles, a program that pairs poor families with people who can help them rise out of poverty. It can be generational, as in Bojorquez's case.
And it can be situational. Many residents are one medical emergency or one paycheck away from sinking beneath the poverty line, Pagan noted. Close to a fifth of Merced County's residents, about 50,000, fall beneath the federal poverty line, according to the U.S. Census' 2006 American Community Survey.
For the Circles campaign to succeed, Pagan warned, Merced must unite to eliminate poverty -- not expect someone else to fight it. Residents and businesses must realize the benefits of winning the battle and the costs of losing it.
Merced County alone doled out $41 million in food stamps in 2007-2008. Circles includes a no-tolerance policy for that, which inevitably means a change in mindset. "(Residents) have to think that kids that are wards of the state are the community's children," Pagan said. "They have to think of people in poverty as neighbors and extend their hand."