Number of poor in county on rise

In the four months since Natasha Pollard lost her $1,400-a-month job, she and her three young children have moved five times. They've scraped by on a small welfare allowance, crashing on friends' couches and cutting their grocery bill by buying in bulk.

"We eat a lot of rice and a lot of potatoes, but we get by," said Pollard, 27. "But it's been a struggle."

With the few dollars she's managed to put away and a little help from her mom, Pollard finally has the cash to rent a $700-a-month apartment. She moves in next week.

But until she finds a job, she and her kids will have to continue cutting corners. "We don't go to the movies. I don't take the kids bowling or skating," said Pollard. "When they get invited to their friends' birthday parties, they usually don't go because we can't afford to get a present."

New data from the U.S. Census Bureau show Pollard is far from alone.

In fact, Merced County is seeing a growing number of families like hers.

The percentage of county residents living in poverty jumped from 18.1 percent to 21.5 percent between 2005 and 2006, according to the Census Bureau's new American Community Survey.

As usual, Merced's poverty rates ranked well above state and national averages, which both held steady at about 13 percent. What's different about this year's data is that Merced County is faring worse than its Central Valley neighbors. Both Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties saw improvements in their 2006 poverty rates compared with 2005.

But Merced's numbers worsened -- one out of five residents now lives below the poverty line. The poverty line isn't a chiseled-in-stone income level. It varies depending on the size of a family and ages of its children. In 2005, the poverty line for a family of three with one child under age 18 was $15,423. In simple terms, people who live below the poverty line don't make enough money to buy adequate food and shelter for their families.

Merced's income levels also worsened. While the median income was $44,447 in 2005, it fell to $42,857 in 2006. In both Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties, median family incomes increased during that period.

Simon Weffer, a sociology professor at UC Merced, linked Merced's grimmer poverty picture in part to the recent housing boom and subsequent bust. Merced's building activity and home sales reached record highs in 2005, raising incomes and lowering poverty along the way. Now the slowdown is hitting Merced harder than its Central Valley neighbors.

"It's important to realize that what's going on in Merced is not happening in other counties," said Weffer. "Part of it is that the housing market hasn't collapsed as badly in other counties. The other thing is that there's more diverse industries that can pick up people that have lost their jobs in (Stanislaus and San Joaquin) counties. In Merced, outside of agribusiness, there aren't as many other businesses to absorb people who lose their jobs."

The key to turning around Merced's poverty numbers, said Weffer, is to create more variety in businesses and job offerings. "Anything that has more and diverse economic impacts, more than just agribusiness and more than just construction, that will be the future of Merced," Weffer explained.

Bill Ruth of the Merced County Community Action Agency said the county's low supply of quality, well-paying jobs contributes significantly to the problem. "We look to companies like Wal-Mart to solve the problem, but that's not what we need," said Ruth. "We need jobs that can support families." Low-paying jobs -- combined with the county's high unemployment, teen pregnancy and high school dropout rates -- make breaking the local poverty cycle a formidable task.

For mothers like Pollard, it's a personal one. After she graduated from Merced High School, Pollard enrolled at Merced College. But when she became pregnant -- she went into labor right before finals -- she had to drop out and get a job.

She says making ends meet has always been a struggle, but when she lost her regular babysitter four months ago, things got a lot harder. She left her job taking customer service calls for Cingular Wireless to stay home with her kids, ages 7, 4 and 2 years old. She's looking for a new job now but so far, she says she hasn't had much luck. "I've applied everywhere -- Wal-Mart, Target, Save Mart. Wherever I can think of," she said. "Day to day, it gets pretty stressful. I'm always worried about having enough food or about how long we're going to be able to stay where we are."

Sadly for the Pollard families of the county, the choice seems to be staying where they are or dropping even deeper into the poverty cycle.

Reporter Leslie Albrecht can be reached at 209-385-2484 or lalbrecht@mercedsun-star.com.

Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at 209-385-2477 or creilly@mercedsun-star.com.