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Any Hope for the Children?

September 01, 2002

Orange County's long-held reputation for solid middle-class affluence is taking some hard hits these days.

A census report released last week chronicled the move of middle-class and upper-middle-class households out of the area, along with a simultaneous rise in working-poor immigrant families that come in at the bottom of the economy. The analysis helped explain why the county's median household income dropped nearly 2% in the last decade.

Then a county advisory board announced that a third of the children here live in poverty, most of them the children of working parents. A fourth of them are so poor that they qualify for financial help to get a $2 school meal in their tummies.

A third report helped put it all in perspective. Where once people thought poverty could be cured by keeping families together and sending parents on welfare off to work, the study found that almost half the poor children in California live with both parents, at least one of whom works--but at a low-paid job with minimal benefits. Most of California's poor youngsters have at least one immigrant parent.

It's all a little startling for a county built on a pioneering belief in perpetual growth.

As a coastal community with a diverse economy, the party line once went, the county would always be a little richer, a little better educated, a little more sheltered from crowding and crime and hunger than the rest of the state.

Now come the signs that such comforting thoughts don't hold true. The days of comfort already are a distant dream for a substantial portion of the population. The question is whether county residents and leaders will ignore these signs in the hope they go away, or transmute their way of looking at their own backyard.

Some of the solutions are beyond the county's reach. It's up to lawmakers at the state and federal levels to work on making health insurance more affordable and available.

The federal government must either fix its failing immigration policies or make up the difference to municipalities whose budgets carry the burden of immigrant poverty.

But local agencies both public and private must not set aside the seriousness of the work to be done. The county's old patchwork of middling though well-intentioned attempts to offer community clinics and grocery giveaways cannot address poverty this big and pervasive. The county's residents no longer can afford to think of poor people as a minor phenomenon scattered somewhere beyond the freeways.

The politicians, business leaders and volunteers of Orange County must draw up an aggressive and coordinated effort to offer a helping hand to families that are striving, yet struggling.

If the county's economic future is to be bright, these children must be given a chance to help make that happen. They must be well-nourished, healthy and educated for the job ahead.

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