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The Hidden Problem of Rural Poverty : Economics: Despite a lifetime of work, Jacqueline Ivory finds herself subsisting as she did in her Depression childhood.

STATE OF THE STATE: The Challenges Confronting California. One in a series.

October 17, 1994|CARLA RIVERA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jacqueline Ivory remembers the Red Cross clothes. They were usually made of red cloth. And they were usually ill-fitting; everything was one size, and she was just a small girl of 12.

This was Bakersfield during the Depression. When her oil-worker father lost his job, Ivory began working, living summers with more well-to-do families as a mother's helper to support her own kin.

In the 63 years since, through two marriages and three children, she has rarely stopped working. But despite the passage of years and a lifetime of experience, Ivory has not been able to escape the poverty of her youth.

She lives now near Marysville, in a low-income, subsidized housing project for the elderly, subsisting on a monthly Social Security check of barely more than $600. A Medi-Cal recipient, she can't find a doctor in town who will treat her hypertension.

"The way I look at it, here I am at 75 with no residuals," she says softly. "But I made my own choices, and my quality of life was always rich."

The problems of rural poverty are rarely addressed by politicians and the news media, and they remain largely invisible to most Californians.

But amid some of the richest agricultural land on earth, there lives a large population of poor Californians beset by double-digit unemployment, abysmal housing conditions and fierce competition for scarce farm jobs.

A groundbreaking 1991 study by the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation found rural poverty and hunger to be serious and overlooked problems. Unemployment in many Central Valley counties, for example, remains more than twice the statewide average. Kern, Stanislaus and Merced counties have among the highest infant mortality rates in the state.

"Weather conditions, the seasonality of agricultural work, plant closures and mechanization all contribute to frequent layoffs, insecurity and joblessness," the study found.

In her high school years, Ivory worked at a printing business, then got into newspaper work in Marysville, even running her own little farm weekly until it went broke.

Later, she worked with emotionally disturbed children in San Francisco. And then, at age 58, she decided to pursue her dream of a college education. She earned a psychology degree at UC Santa Cruz but never was able to find a job utilizing her skills.

"I manage to get by," says Ivory, who despite setbacks is trying to start a desktop publishing business from her home. "But there are other people who live here, women, whose Social Security is practically nothing and their income is decimated."

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