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A Mother's Struggle to Overcome : Social issues: Growing poverty besieges California. One woman tells her story of trying to support a daughter on a part-time job while fighting sickness and depression.

STATE OF THE STATE: The Challenges Confronting California. One in a series. About This Series: In the heat of a gubernatorial campaign, the candidates sometimes dwell on matters that have little to do with the larger problems facing Californians in the years ahead. This series looks beyond the rhetoric. A story last week set the stage by exploring the limits--and possibilities--of gubernatorial power. Today's story examines the living conditions of California's poorest citizens--and what they augur for the state's future. The installments ahead: * Changing population: Are demographic forces reshaping California more quickly than the political system can react? * Economy and education: Are California's schools providing an underpinning for the state's economic future? * Fiscal straitjacket: Can the state government solve its budget problems and provide for future growth? * Environment: How will California balance environmental protection against the pressures of economic need?

October 17, 1994|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Nivia Burmudez is in the midst of an animated conversation, recounting to visitors a rocky, unhappy marriage that nevertheless produced a happy, beautiful daughter, when a loud rap echoes from the screen door of the small Eastside apartment that mother and daughter share.

A truancy official has come by to ask why 8-year-old Crystal, playing with her pet parakeet on the front room floor, is not in school.

The account Burmudez gives--ill health that hampers her ability to get the child off to school, underemployment that barely meets her family's needs, lack of money for day care or baby-sitters, an inner-city school in a rough area that her daughter resists attending--reflects many of the challenges faced by California's expanding population of poor and low-income residents.

Their plight has proved a stubborn thorn in the side of state leaders, who once again this election year must grapple with the dilemma of expanding poverty and a growing demand for services amid a long-depressed economy.

The protracted fiscal and social problems besieging the state seemed at their worst two years ago as Los Angeles erupted in rioting that became the worst U.S. civil disturbance of this century.

But in the wake of that upheaval, plans to reform welfare and health care, improve education and schools, retrain the work force and rebuild inner cities remain elusive goals, the stuff of campaign rhetoric.

According to the most recent census estimates, 18.2% of Californians live below the poverty level, struggling to maintain families, homes and dignity in an economic and social climate that has buffeted even the most well-off.

The plight of the poor resonates up and down the state, with poverty infecting the soil of California's rural heartland as well as its cities like a drug-resistant disease. While Los Angeles County, California's most populous, has a staggering 1.3 million poor residents, Imperial County has the highest poverty rate of all, with one quarter of its residents living below the threshold.

The plague that has afflicted poor residents, urban and rural, is persistent unemployment and underemployment that has exacerbated housing, food and health problems. And as the state's economic climate has worsened, health and social service programs that serve the state's most vulnerable populations have been targeted for deep cuts.

For residents like Nivia Burmudez, a native New Yorker who migrated to California more than 18 years ago, the upcoming governor's election pitting incumbent Pete Wilson against state Treasurer Kathleen Brown provokes both hope and frustration.

Both candidates talk of improving the economy, which Burmudez knows will help the overall condition of people like herself. Yet she also has the sense that no one is really interested in addressing her concerns, that the everyday lives of the poor barely register on the political radar.

"Politicians have never had to live at the level that I have and survive, so they don't understand," says Burmudez, a small woman whose feisty energy and accent announce her New York roots.

She is sitting in a waiting room of a clinic in Long Beach, her first visit to the doctor in about two months because of complications with her medical coverage. Medi-Cal will not cover some of the medications she has been prescribed--one of which costs up to $150 a month--so she has tried to pay out of her pocket or has simply gone without.

In the examining room, Burmudez tells the doctor her mood has been down, that she can't sleep at night.

"Depression amplifies pain a lot," he tells her. "I want to work on that. If we can, I think we will have success."

Burmudez's circumstances in recent years have fostered enough emotional turmoil for a lifetime, but also have stirred a fierce survival instinct and sense of political awareness she had not known before.

"The problem with a lot of reforms that are being proposed is that the children suffer," she says, sitting now in her small living room cluttered with boxes of clothes, shoes and papers. She moved into the apartment five months ago after living in a succession of homeless shelters.

"The children are not the ones taking drugs or having babies," Burmudez continues. "Children need to be protected in California. This is such a rich country."

It is a warm, pleasant morning, and Burmudez has her door open to let in a breeze, when the tap, tap is heard.

The woman at the door, Margarita Rojas, is from Sheridan Street Elementary School, only a few blocks away. Crystal, she says, is frequently absent, and when she does go to school, she is often half an hour to an hour late.

"Let's see if we can improve attendance and tardiness," says Rojas. What time does Crystal get to bed, she wants to know.

Crystal--a shy but bouncy third-grader with expressive brown eyes who already has attended five different schools--says she stays up late sometimes watching television.

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