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Test of progress: How Merced County treats its poorest points to its future

This is how it smells when you're poor.

Musk. Dust. Dried sweat. Wood smoke. Tobacco smoke. Bad breath. Body lotion. Spanish rice. Cooking oil.

The last two odors rise from supper just cooked in the kitchen of the Merced Rescue Mission. All the other smells rise off the bodies of the 11 men spending the night on wooden bunk beds in two rooms on the second floor one Sunday night.

Men who stay here are at or near the end of the line. Ronny, on a bottom bunk, just got out of the slammer at Susanville for possession and sale. "I used my gate money to buy a package of crystal," he says, "and my parole officer didn't like that much. So here I am." He's been at the shelter two weeks and hopes to soon achieve "disciple" status, which means he'll live there for a full year, trying to straighten out. "This place ain't nothin' like the joint," he allows. "Nothin'."

Gino, who after chow scored an olive-green trench coat from the shelter's clothing window, is trying to kick booze and grass by attending four meetings a week. Now in his early 20s, he was evicted from the house he was sharing with three other guys when nobody paid the rent. "Just 'cause I ain't from Texas don't mean I can't be a 'Boys fan," the lifelong Merced resident declares. He sleeps with the trench coat over his No. 84 Dallas Cowboys "Galloway" jersey.

Before lights out at 10, they both rub some of the shelter's free lotion on their skin -- Ronny on the Asian symbol tats on his chest and back; Gino on his withered right foot. Eight other men next door -- black, white, brown and yellow -- have been asleep for two or three hours.

These are Merced's invisible poor. Even if you pass them, say in Veterans Park, with their little red wagon or rusted baby stroller piled high with black trash bags, they stay unseen. Try not shaving or bathing for a few days, wear torn warm-up pants, an old sweatshirt, a battered ball cap and carry a grimy army duffel bag. Then walk around downtown Merced.

You're invisible.

"May I ask you not to avoid our eye?" pleaded Clarence J. Latta, who said in a February letter to the Sun-Star that he'd lost his home to foreclosure. "Take a few moments to say hi. You just might find a good, honest, drug-free, nonalcoholic, wonderful person under that little bit of dirt and grime. Please look beyond."

The county also hosts a lot of poor who are all too visible. With a per capita family income of just over $17,000, one-fourth of the county's kids are living in poverty, and the county's overall rate is 19.4 percent (defined as a family of four, including two kids, with annual income of less than $22,000). Roughly one of six households gets food stamps, and more than 5,000 qualify for public assistance.

"The test of our progress is not whether we add more to the abundance of those who have much; it is whether we provide enough for those who have too little."

--Franklin D. Roosevelt,

second inaugural address

Merced County is California's Appalachia, without the trail; Detroit's 8 Mile, with almond groves; L.A.'s Pico-Union, with dairies; central Long Beach, without the Cambodian graffiti. This is a place where people stage car washes to pay for funerals. Theft of copper wire is a growth industry. Even the dogs are skinny in South Dos Palos.

Merced County presents a unique paradox of poverty. It's got the scary numbers of urban underclass neighborhoods -- yet its main industry is agriculture. Its fertile fields and orchards help feed the country and the world -- yet some of its own go to bed hungry. Its leading families have been here for generations -- yet it's one of the youngest counties, by age, in the nation. It hosts the first U.S. scientific and research university built in the 21st century -- yet it sends the second-fewest number of high school grads in the state on to college. Its main ethnic groups, Hispanics and Hmong, cherish family ties -- yet among Merced city families where a female is head of household, nearly half live in poverty.

Why should you care?

Just as the loss of a single species can threaten an entire ecosystem, so too can poverty pollute an entire community. Merced's main problems -- crime, gangs, drugs, low test scores, busted families, the homeless -- flow from poverty. Poverty affects the behavior and influences the destiny of all 250,000 people living here.

It could also happen to you next -- how many have six months' salary saved? "One paycheck away" is a mantra for many Mercedians. "Poverty is the most powerful and defining factor that causes the inequities that plague my hometown," says Charles Ogletree, a Merced native now internationally recognized as a Harvard University law professor.

One study estimates the cost of having children raised in poverty at $500 billion a year in the United States. "Ending poverty is a moral, economic and social imperative," writes Scott C. Miller, author of the 2008 book "Until It's Over," who spoke in Merced in June.

"The trouble with being poor is that it takes up all your time."

-- William de Kooning

Poverty's causes loom much more clearly than its solutions:

Lack of jobs: Merced's unemployment rate was 12.1 percent in July, fourth-highest in the state, leaving 12,800 people jobless. South Dos Palos reported a stunning one-third of its work force out of work, with Planada right behind. "Employers report that a large segment of the resulting work force lacks the requisite 'life skills' and therefore are not hired," according to a study by the Modesto-based Great Valley Center. Adds state Sen. Jeff Denham: "The No. 1 issue is to create more jobs to attract new business."

Lack of education: The county ranked 56th out of California's 58 counties in the number of high school students eligible to attend a state public university; it ranks 52nd in the number of elementary school students meeting state targets for the English language. "If you're from a poor family and you have to get to the library to access the Internet, and both your parents are working, who's going to drive?" asks Kelvin Jasek-Rysdahl, professor of economics and co-director of the Center for Public Policy Studies at California State University, Stanislaus. "How do you get to college if you can't get access to education?"

Crime: Property crime has been rising steadily as the national recession ripples through Merced. And gangs -- mainly Latino and Southeast Asian -- have recruited an estimated 2,500 young Mercedians. "The only thing to do is hang out in the alley and the barrio," says UC Merced student activist Rosanna Cruz, who's worked with migrant workers and their children.

Drugs: Meth is no longer the scourge it was a few years ago, but far too many lives are still indiscriminately torn apart by its ravages. "The availability and price make it appealing not only to the poor but to middle-class younger people," says county spokeswoman Katie Albertson.

Broken families: 13.4 percent of Merced city grandparents are raising their grandchildren, and around 22 percent of households are headed by one parent. "If you grow up in a strong family, you're more likely to create a strong family on your own," says Rhonda Walton, director of the county's Child Support Services.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza tracks another trajectory: "We're not taking care of health care in Merced County because we're policing Iraq. We're not taking care of the drug fight because we're policing Iraq. We're losing kids dying in the streets because we're policing Iraq."

Maybe the most unsettling and intractable basis for being poor: "Poverty is the cause of poverty," declares Jasek-Rysdahl, the CSU Stanislaus professor.

Each year, as pressures pile up, it becomes harder for those mired in poverty's morass to free themselves from its grasp. "If you don't have your future laid out, you look elsewhere," suggests Walton. "You look for companionship -- pregnancy and gangs. You look for money -- drug sales, prostitution, robbery. You start trying to create your own future."

"You can't get rid of poverty by giving people money."

-- P.J. O'Rourke,

"Parliament of Whores"

Some local experts cite ethnic background as a contributor to poverty in Merced. "Some of (poverty) is generational," says Ana Pagan, director of the county's Human Services Agency. "Historical perspective in Hispanic culture tends to concentrate on family relationships and no so much on education." Lack of English-speaking ability erodes the chances of both Latino and Southeast Asian residents to become better educated and get more than subsistence-level jobs.

William Julius Wilson, a University of Chicago professor whose 1978 book, "The Declining Significance of Race," sparked both praise and outrage, commented further in a later book on the role of race in poverty: "There still is firm basis for accepting the argument that a ghetto underclass has emerged and exhibits the problems of long-term poverty and welfare dependency." (Wilson is black.)

A 2002 Rand Corp. study on Latino repopulation in rural California concluded that "small increases in Latino self-employment and political representation found in communities with higher concentrations of Latino residents are not accompanied by enhanced community well-being." In March, the Economist magazine reported that, over the past decade, "probably for the first time, half of all Hispanic children in America were born out of wedlock."

And with the county's Latino population hovering near half of all residents, how a culture responds to being poor profoundly affects the other half. Still, as Pagan insists: "Nobody wants to be poor. Any one of us could wind up in poverty, given the right circumstances."

Arianna Hernandez, a health and social services worker with Central California Child Development Services Inc., often deals with migrant worker families. One six-person household, she noted, earned only $23,000 for the four to six months they labored in the fields. Unemployment payments dry up after 32 weeks, then the harvest season begins again. "They can barely write their names," she says of some nearly illiterate migrant workers. "There's no one to pay for college, no retirement, no insurance and children over 18 don't get Medi-Cal."

Some years back, The Fresno Bee published an important series, "Valley of the Poor." So the problem isn't new. But how it's unfolding these days may be different from past incarnations. Linda Lopez, an aide to Congressman Cardoza who grew up in a family of 10 farmworkers, believes that poverty today casts a more toxic pall over its victims. "There's a serious loneliness -- you don't know where you're going," she says. "It's like a depression, a personal emotional depression. I look into a child's eyes, and I see they've checked out."

Herb Opalek, director of the Merced Rescue Mission, observes that the demographics of poverty have shifted. "We get educated people, middle class people, hitting the streets," he says. He reckons the number of people taking advantage of his free-food program has risen 50 percent over the past five years.

Poverty is invasive. Your income affects your life, a fact too often ignored or dismissed by middle- and upper-class Mercedians. In the book, "The Consequences of Growing Up Poor," contributors' research revealed that "family economic conditions in early and middle childhood appear to be far more important for shaping ability and achievement that they do during adolescence."

Moreover, "increasing the incomes of children below or near the poverty line seems to have a bigger impact on ability and attainment than in increasing the incomes of children in middle-class or affluent families." Finally, "family income is usually a stronger predictor of ability and achievement outcomes than are measure of parental schooling or family structure."

In short, fair or unfair, you will become what you earn. Especially if you live in a county as young as Merced.

"Empty pockets never held anyone back. Only empty heads and empty hearts can do that."

-- Norman Vincent Peale

To be sure, some argue that poverty, both here and across the country, isn't a plague visited on that many American houses. Last year, the Census bureau listed 37 million people in the U.S., as officially living in poverty. California's poverty rate was 12.4 percent, 23rd among states, and its median household income was $59,948, according to U.S. Census figures.

But some analysts reject the dire implications of the numbers. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation noted that 46 percent of all poor households own their own homes; 80 percent have air conditioning; two-thirds have more than two rooms per person; three-fourths own a car; and 97 percent have a color TV. "There are two main reasons that American children are poor," he concludes. "Their parents don't work much, and their fathers are absent from the home."

Such libertarian views may explain some cases, but they don't solve much -- especially here. Cruz, the UC Merced student activist, recently was talking about her grandmother who survived in Michoacan, Mexico, with no running water or electricity and the nearest store a day's walk away.

Suddenly, Roseanne, a woman leaning on a cane wearing one sweatshirt with another tied around her waist, stood next to the undergrad inside the downtown Starbucks. Roseanne announced that she and Victor, her bearded companion, were heading for Florida. "This place used to be nice," she gestured to include the whole city. "Not anymore."

A few blocks away, Chrystal, who lives under the bridge at 16th Street and Bear Creek, posed a public policy question about the new homeless shelter west of town that's been indefinitely delayed. "Instead of a homeless shelter," she asked standing on the bridge, "why not purchase some land and let us pitch our tents there?"

At the Merced Flea Market, owner Dennis Mineni reckons that he gets 6,000 people a week nowadays, up from 5,000 last year. Buyers and vendors can now use federally approved food-stamp cards to buy produce, and at both the Merced and Atwater flea markets in April, $8,000 changed hands -- up from only $80 the first month the cards were used last year. "My gut feeling is that there are more shoppers with probably less money in their pocket," Mineni suggests.

Sales at Merced's Goodwill Store were down $4,000 in April, and overall "we had three times as many people shopping" last year as this year, says an employee. She blames a slumping economy and higher food and gasoline prices for people "not being as impulsive a shopper."

And out in Stevinson, at the junction of Highway 165 and Third, in a grassy field, rusted-out pickup trucks and ancient clunkers ring a concrete slab. When a van from the Merced Rescue Mission rolls up at 5 p.m., people emerge from their vehicles like casualties stumbling from a battlefield. They line up quietly and watch as two men from the mission hand out Styrofoam boxes of spaghetti and meatballs prepared back in Merced, sacks of bread donated by Panera Bread in Turlock, pallets of eggs from Gemperle farms in Turlock and milk from Hilmar Cheese.

The handouts have been happening weekly for three years, says Patty Little, an organizer. Some 125 meals a week are served there, dozens more early in the day by Hilmar Helping Hands from a garage near the giant dairy. At Stevinson, one woman talks as she shuffles forward in line. "My boys are not raised yet," she mumbles. "That's my main concern. Keep 'em in your prayers." Little later relates that the woman lost two children in a car wreck three years ago and is wracked with cirrhosis of the liver and pancreatitis.

Except for the Asian faces in line, the scene could be right out of "The Grapes of Wrath."

"A rich man is nothing but a poor man with money."

-- W.C. Fields

The poor are always with us, says the Bible, and it's been that way in Merced since two seismic economic events. First, Castle Air Force Base, with hundreds of well-paying jobs and a robust tax base, closed in 1995. Not long after, Farmers Insurance, probably the last major employer where a kid with a high school diploma could climb the white-collar ladder, also shuttered its doors.

What's left for many local families is a painful choice, says Simon Weffer, assistant sociology professor at UC Merced: "Is it better for my kid to work six to eight hours a day at Save Mart or go after more education?"

Complicating change -- or even hampering it -- is the county's peculiar social structure. Many Mercedians who post comments on the Sun-Star's Web site routinely call it "a good ol' boy" system. Ira Jones, a South Merced neighborhood activist who grew up on that side of the tracks, flatly calls it "a plantation mentality -- everybody's here to serve the people who run the plantation." (Jones, who is black, says the mentality applies to all races.)

Martha McKenzie, special projects director for the Human Services Agency, refers to "an inverse caste system." Carol Whiteside, chair emeritus of the Great Valley Center, describes it as a "colonial structure." UC Merced's Weffer believes "there's definitely a class divide" in Merced.

Whatever it's called, the county establishment is small, rich and mostly white. Founding families control much more than the enterprises they created with imagination and hard work generations ago. They control politics, to a large degree, and they influence public policy through the top tier of the more than 15,000 state and local employees (out of 68,800 total jobs).

With power comes responsibility. The need for the political will needed to deal with poverty "is huge," says UC Merced's Weffer. "That's what will determine where we fight poverty in Merced." Whiteside, of the Great Valley Center, believes the political will is around, "but the vision is not shared by enough people." Harvard Law's Ogletree advocates eliminating the railroad tracks as a dividing line between South and North Merced. Until that happens, "the haves and the have-nots will have communities that are separate and unequal," he warns.

One reason an elite exists is that the county's layer of middle-class residents is thin. Nonprofit boards, for example, often list many of the same names -- simply because those who can afford the time and money to volunteer come from a small slice of better-off folks. "It's difficult for private business people or private individuals to feel they have a responsibility for providing for everybody," observes county Supervisor Deidre Kelsey. "They take care of their own needs and then go off with the kids to a soccer game."

For a generation or longer, many of the better jobs in Merced were to be found in a school district or with the county. People in those positions gradually began to run for public office, to volunteer at nonprofits, to otherwise help the less fortunate. Granted, they now may be regarded as "elite," but as Kelsey points out, "They're all we've got."

John Alexander, executive director of the Merced County Health Care Consortium and a former candidate for supervisor, agrees with some of the descriptions of the county's ruling class, but doesn't believe their actions are mean or malicious. Those with power and influence unintentionally "cause animus with the underserved part of our society." He hopes to "get people talking" about the issue, but concedes that "there is fear" among minorities and others who may not speak fluent English and so may be regarded as "less smart or less logical. When they do speak up, it kind of falls on deaf ears."

Some of the county's business leaders advocate the modern equivalent of trade schools so that high school grads can learn a well-paying vocation. Mike Gallo of Gallo Ranches and Loren Gonella of Century 21 Gonella both believe vocational programs would increase employment. "We manage 600 pieces of property," Gonella says, "and we could use those kind of people every day."

Kathleen Crookham, a native Mercedian, former educator and now a rancher and county supervisor, suggests that the county needs to approach the problem of poverty the same ways it did in attracting UC Merced. "If the political will (to combat poverty) isn't there, then the political will can be brought about by the grassroots," she says.

The stakes couldn't be higher. Forecasts project the county's population at 276,200 in two years, at 417,200 by 2030. How will one of California's -- and the nation's -- poorest and youngest counties cope with that many more people? Can it? What if it doesn't? What will happen to Mercedians who enjoy a comparatively comfortable lifestyle?

As of right now, the questions far outnumber and outgun answers and solutions. But the alternative for business, political and community leaders who don't begin to deal with the issue of poverty is unthinkable.

Back at the rescue mission, it's dark as the men bed down for the night. A lone train wails through the window, which is propped open with five stacked Bibles. The train's whistle is joined by a police siren and church bells. Snores soon drown out any thoughts on how it smells to be poor.

Spread out on the window sill is a picture puzzle. The puzzle depicts a lighthouse on a rocky beach next to a white-capped ocean. The puzzle is one-third done.

"It would be nice if the poor were to get even half the money that is spent studying them."

-- Bill Vaughn

City editor Mike Tharp can be reached at (209) 385-2427 or