They often are invisible amid the affluence--working in factories or cleaning houses, raising children alone or struggling to survive on the streets.
Their numbers are relatively few: Poor women in Orange County accounted for 4% of the total population of 1.9 million in the 1980 census, the latest for which figures are available. Their level of poverty varied according to family size and, to a certain extent, the age of the head of the family. The annual income for a family of four was $7,382.
Because of the nature of poverty, coupled with the image of Orange County women as upwardly mobile or even wealthy, poor women may go unnoticed, say those who in the helping professions who work with them.
As part of Women's Week at Rancho Santiago College in Santa Ana, women from four distinct ethnic and social backgrounds who are noted for their work with poor women will make up a panel today at 11 a.m. to address "The Politics of Poverty: A Woman's Perspective." (They will meet in room U201A of the Johnson Campus Center.)
The topic was chosen by the Women's Coalition of Orange County, co-sponsor of today's Women's Day activities, because poverty was a common denominator for women "that superseded color," said Paula Werner, coalition chairwoman. "We knew we had differences in some cultures, in religions, in family structures, but we found that poverty was something common among all types of women."
The panelists say, as with all urban and suburban poverty, the solutions lie in more--more low-cost housing, more and cheaper child care, more accessible education, more and better jobs, more long-term shelters for the homeless and finally more recognition of a problem that seems at variance with the image of Orange County.
The panelists and highlights of their messages:
Sister Carmen Sarati
St. Joseph's Parish, Santa Ana
In her work with poor Latin women, primarily in the Santa Ana area, Sister Carmen Sarati, a Catholic nun, said she has seen a hierarchy develop among them.
The conditions of their poverty usually vary only in degree, she said. In her grouping of three types of poor women, many are likely to live in overcrowded conditions, receive welfare or Aid to Dependent Children and have little or no sources of transportation or child care. "The first group are the ones who work and try to be self-supporting or who work along with a husband to be self-supporting," Sarati said. "They usually work at very unskilled labor, mostly in factories on assembly lines and don't usually get further than that unless they learn English.
"The second group are single, unmarried women who can't find jobs and only work sporadically because of the limitation of their transportation. The third group never tries to work. . . . They may be married or not and may have four or five children. Some are abandoned. They may take care of other people's children for money."
Most of the women don't drive, "and they have to get up very early to take the bus to go to Irvine or Laguna Niguel to do domestic work or factory work," Sarati said. "And if they're taking care of someone else's children, it's ironic, because they in turn have to find someone to take care of their own children."
The poverty cycle often is strengthened by the fact that many Latino women live in overcrowded conditions, she said. Because of prohibitively high rents, many live with other families or with several members of their own family in a small apartment. Along with other poverty groups, Latinos have found a lack of low-cost housing in Orange County to accommodate them, and in some low-cost housing the rent still is too high, Sarati said. "Latinos do not have a fear of overcrowding. The need for privacy is an Anglo trait. They believe that if they make room for one more, they will benefit by that goodness, that God will bless their generosity. Many recent arrivals from Mexico come from a very rural, rough life where sharing a one-bedroom apartment was a luxury. Here it's a violation, and the owner may raise the rent if there's overcrowding. "You take a woman who's cleaning houses. She tries to clean five a week at $40 apiece. Her children are getting Aid for Dependent Children, so she's got to hide the fact that she's working. There are very few places that are friendly to women like that. It's a trap, really, to try to find decent housing in Orange County for these people.
The cycle of poverty among Latin women is difficult to break, Sarati said, and few women advance beyond low-paying jobs. "It would require them to change skills," she said, "and most immigrants don't have any marketable skills. It would also require a change in attitude about themselves, a big dose of self-esteem. A lot of them just don't think they can learn English, for instance. "Many try to go to language schools at night, but as soon as there's an emergency at home--say someone gets sick--they drop out."