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COLUMN ONE : Invisible Poor--Whites : Anglos are the largest and least-understood impoverished group in California. Most are dispersed in rural areas where they receive little public attention.


MODESTO — Cockroaches crawl over the residents' beds at night. Dirt yards are cluttered with debris. Groups of young men stand around drinking all day. Drugs are rampant, rowdiness and violence are common. There is despair and anger.

This is Del Rio Mobile Home Park, the ghetto on the riverbanks at the edge of town.

"They want the poor to stay in places like this where they won't have to see them," said Michelle Hammond, a 25-year-old woman who lives in a small trailer with her husband and four children.

The Hammonds, like most families who live in Del Rio, receive public aid. Most Del Rio families have something else in common. They belong to the largest and perhaps least understood poverty group in California: the white poor.

Largely dispersed in rural areas and small communities, they defy the public image of poverty as primarily a problem of blacks and Latinos in the inner cities.

While that image was reinforced by the Los Angeles riots, the 1990 census tells a different story: 1,821,146 non-Hispanic whites, 1,598,213 Latinos and 437,201 blacks lived in poverty in California. Census officials define poverty as an annual income of less than $6,310 per year for a single person, $8,076 for a couple and $12,674 for a family of four.

The state Department of Social Services uses a broader standard in determining eligibility for welfare. The latest federal standard of poverty for a family of three, for example, is an income of $10,857 per year, according to census officials. But under state Department of Social Services guidelines, a family of three that earns less than $15,396 a year is considered needy and eligible for aid, depending on taxes and other living expenses.

More Anglo families received financial aid, food stamps and other public assistance last year in California than any other racial or ethnic group. State figures show, for example, that 267,488 non-Hispanic white families were on welfare--the main program being Aid to Families With Dependent Children--compared to 262,782 Latino, 177,021 black and 49,048 Asian families.

To be sure, the large number of poor whites reflects the fact that overall there are more whites living in California than any other group. It is also true that a larger percentage of Latinos and blacks are poor--21%--compared to 9% of whites.

While nonwhite poverty in large metropolitan areas has been burned into the public consciousness, the news media and academia often overlook the white poor because they are spread out, not as easy to find and considered less newsworthy than big-city ghetto dwellers, researchers say.

Ignoring the white poor "feeds the public's perception that the underclass is exclusively a minority problem," according to a 1991 study by Ronald B. Mincy, senior research associate with the Urban Institute in Washington.

Even in Los Angeles, where poor Anglos are greatly outnumbered by impoverished blacks and Latinos, their ranks are not small. Anglos accounted for more than 17% of the 267,261 families in Los Angeles County who received family aid payments last year.

Throughout California, the white poor are sprinkled in vest pocket slums, in old hotels, trailer courts and run-down apartments. They live in cars on riverbanks and at roadside rest stops. Some are newly destitute because of the recession, clinging to their homes in middle-class suburbs while reluctantly seeking public aid. Others were raised on welfare and bring up their children the same way. There are old people who have worked all their lives and yet have only inadequate pensions, and young parents who toil at minimum wage jobs.

More than 400 miles north of Los Angeles, vacationers heading for Lake Tahoe on Interstate 80 drive through the foothills of the Sierra where the landscape gradually changes from scrub growth to wide oaks, tall pines and red cedars.

If travelers glance toward the side as they pass a place called Clipper Gap, they might notice a little green-and-white frame building with a steeple. The turn-of-the-century schoolhouse is as pretty as a picture postcard. It is also a sign of white poverty.

The Clipper Gap School is a Head Start headquarters. The Great Society program that is perhaps best known for giving poor, inner-city preschoolers an educational boost is in this case used primarily by impoverished, rural, white youngsters.

At the Clipper Gap Head Start, 20 children, most of them white, prepare for kindergarten by playing educational games, singing and learning to get along.

Peggy Hartman, director of the program, sometimes leaves Head Start literature on cars at roadside rest stops and campgrounds--"because," she said, "many times we have families that have lived on the river and have gone from campground to campground and even lived in cars."

Henry Zablotny isn't one of those people and, in fact, was doing well enough a few years ago to own an apartment building. But now Zablotny qualifies to enroll his 5-year-old son in Head Start.

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