Some stand in employment lines. Some beg on street corners. Some harvest fruits and vegetables in the torrid summers of the Central Valley.
All have one thing in common: They are so poor that they need government food stamps to stave off hunger.
As a group, they are nameless and not easily identified, but in the next few months they will be among the hardest hit by the massive welfare changes recently enacted by Congress.
Their role was written into the welfare script through an obscure provision adopted with scant debate. Childless, able-bodied adults age 18 to 50 will be cut off from food stamps after three months unless they get part-time jobs.
"Where are you going to get a job in three months?" asked John Brandon, 43, a former forklift operator living in South-Central Los Angeles. "I mean, I've been looking now for longer than three months and I haven't found one. I guess it's possible if you be at the right place at the right time, but where is that?"
The able-bodied unemployed will be the first American citizens to experience the effects of a congressional decision to end a decades-long government policy that attempted to guarantee that no one in this country would go hungry.
"If this happens, I wouldn't have money for food," said Teresa Adams, 25, an unemployed secretarial worker in Norwalk who has been job-hunting for nine months. "How are people going to eat on nothing?"
Although the provision has been overshadowed by other welfare cuts affecting families and legal immigrants, some research and advocacy groups contend it will reap severe hardship, particularly in Los Angeles County.
Those most likely to lose their food stamps, experts say, will be low-wage earners who have lost their jobs, women who are attempting to return to the work force and seasonal agricultural employees.
The unemployed can qualify for stamps if they participate in workfare, but the law allocates no money for these local programs.
So the new law is expected to drive many people to soup kitchens and food pantries, which operators say are already overwhelmed.
This "is probably the single harshest provision written into a major safety net program in at least 30 years," said a recent analysis by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a Washington-based research group that studies public policy issues affecting the poor.
But Rep. Robert W. Ney (R-Ohio), one of the authors of the provision, called the criticism a politically motivated attempt to scare people before it goes into effect.
Ney, whose district includes some portions of Appalachia, said the measure forces local communities and governments to confront the problems of the poor and devise creative ways to "fit them into the working population of this country."
"I think we need to make some changes and face the fact what we are doing now is not working," he said. "This is not a cold proposal. There's some safety net in this thing."
For example, Ney said, there is no excuse for states not to establish workfare programs that would allow jobless people to continue receiving food stamps.
Unlike some welfare cuts, this provision gives states a strict timetable. For childless adults on food stamps, the three-month countdown starts Nov. 22. Those who have not found part-time jobs by the February deadline can expect to be denied government assistance in buying food the next month. And they will remain ineligible to receive stamps for three years unless they find work.
Neither state nor local officials know how many people would be affected. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that "in an average month, 1 million jobless individuals . . . would be denied food stamps under the provision," at a savings for the federal budget of $5.1 billion over six years.
The state Department of Social Services estimates that about 200,000 people will be affected. Although that is a small percentage of the 3.2 million people receiving food stamps in California, the biggest concentration--an estimated 80,000 to 90,000, or enough to fill a small city--are in Los Angeles County.
A high percentage are on general relief, the county-financed welfare program that each month provides cash assistance of up to $212 to about 93,000 needy adults.
Many stamp recipients are the short-term unemployed, blue-collar workers who lost jobs as a result of plant closings, layoffs or downsizing. Others are street people, the homeless who bed down on the sidewalks by night and beg by day. Many are women, some middle-aged, who have spent years raising children and now have empty nests and few job skills.
"The stereotype of these people is the 25-year-old guy hanging around a street corner, yet 40% are women," said David A. Super, an author of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities' analysis, citing government figures.
For four years, Teresa Adams held a steady job as an office worker, then her employer suddenly went out of business and she plunged into poverty.