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The Hard Life -- Santa Ana Style

The O.C. city tops a new urban-hardship index with a brand of poverty characterized not by blight, but by bustling employment and very crowded living quarters.

September 05, 2004|Mike Anton and Jennifer Mena | Times Staff Writers

Enayda Morales and her family came to the United States from Mexico five years ago, drawn by a dream to one of Southern California's biggest immigrant gateways.

In Santa Ana, Morales and her husband and two young children found what tens of thousands of others did before them: Hope on the installment plan, with steep monthly payments.

"Es la rueda Americana," said Morales -- "The American treadmill."

Her husband earns $400 a week in an auto body shop. The family subsists on rice and beans. Chicken is a splurge. Their two-bedroom apartment rents for $1,200. One of those bedrooms is sublet to a family of five for $500.

"We never go out. We can't because that means spending money we don't have," said Morales, 37. "You live here to pay bills. I'll go home, look in the mailbox and there will be another one."

This may be the emerging new face of inner-city poverty in America, researchers say.

Urban poverty has traditionally been defined by abandoned homes and businesses, soaring unemployment and rampant homelessness in cities such as Cleveland; Detroit; Gary, Ind.; and Newark, N.J.

But in a study to be released Monday, Santa Ana topped a list ranking "urban hardship" among the nation's largest cities. By weighing a variety of social and economic indicators, researchers at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government concluded that Santa Ana -- where most people have a roof over their head and manufacturing jobs have been added -- was the nation's toughest place to survive.

As in Los Angeles and Fresno -- which ranked ninth and eighth respectively on the hardship list -- the quality of life in Santa Ana is shaped by a huge number of Latin American immigrants who work multiple jobs, sleep on couches and struggle with high housing costs and a lack of education.

"This is a population with survival strategies that are based on daily and weekly employment," said Caesar Sereseres, associate dean of UC Irvine's School of Social Sciences. "This is not the story of black urban areas of the '60s and '70s. What's happened in Santa Ana may represent a new model of urbanization. It raises issues of what constitutes poverty."

The report by the Rockefeller Institute, based at the State University of New York in Albany, is part of an ongoing study of cities that began in 1970. Of the 55 large cities followed over that time, nearly 75% showed improvement in the living conditions of their neediest residents using six criteria: unemployment, education, income, crowded housing, the number of dependents and the percentage living below the federal poverty level.

Richard P. Nathan, the institute's director, said he was surprised to see Santa Ana at the top of the list.

"I'm an Easterner; I have an Eastern view of city problems. It's a different face of urban challenge [in Santa Ana]. A different look and feel of the urban condition. The edge of things to come."

Santa Ana wasn't populous enough for the study in 1970. But the city's growth -- fueled by a stream of immigrants, mostly from Mexico -- has dramatically altered its character and demographics in the past generation.

For starters, many believe the 338,000 people counted by the 2000 census is wildly off the mark. The Urban Institute, for instance, estimates that as much as one-fourth of Santa Ana's population could be undocumented immigrants. Other observers say the city's population could top 500,000.

Santa Ana has the nation's second-highest number of foreign-born residents, topped only by Miami. Its median age of 26 is among the lowest of any large U.S. city. Its average household is 4.6 people, greater than any U.S. city with a population of more than 50,000.

That figure disguises the reality of living arrangements in Santa Ana, where it's common to find apartments crammed with six, eight, 10 people to a room and where sleeping on someone's living room floor can run you $150 a month.

The city's per capita income of $12,152 was about half that of Orange County as a whole, according to the 2000 census. But that too is misleading. City housing officials say the average rent on a two-bedroom apartment in Santa Ana is $1,108 a month -- about the same as the average countywide.

Living in Santa Ana is difficult largely because it isn't cheap.

"Many of the families we work with earn less than $15,000 a year," said America Bracho, who heads Latino Health Access, a nonprofit Santa Ana-based healthcare outreach group. "How do you get by on that in Orange County?"

If you're Domitila Torres, you stand.

Torres, 53, works six hours a day, six days a week handing out fliers in downtown Santa Ana for a low-cost prenatal service that caters to immigrants. She earns $200 a week. Her boss tells her she can't sit during her shift. She wears comfortable sandals and is happy for the opportunity.

Torres came to Santa Ana from her native state of Guerrero 12 years ago for the same reason other immigrants do: work. Friends of her children brought her to Santa Ana and she has never left -- ever.

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