October 2003 Volume 9 Number 4
California San Joaquin Valley: Jobs, Air, Politics
The Fresno Bee on September 7, 2003 ran a series of articles on the "jobs crisis" in the San Joaquin Valley. Fresno and Tulare counties, the two leading farm counties in California, have the state's highest poverty rates- about a quarter of residents have incomes below the poverty line, and unemployment rates averaged above 10 percent over the past 20 years. Some 20 to 25 percent of adults have less than a ninth-grade education, and school drop out rates are high: in 1998-99, Fresno Unified greeted 8,049 freshmen in the Class of 2002, but there were only 3,678 graduates four years later.
Agriculture is seen positively and negatively. The farm sales of the eight-county San Joaquin Valley exceed those of any state except California, but a "voracious demand for cheap seasonal labor" also helps to explain the San Joaquin Valley's widespread poverty and unemployment. One farmer says: "We've done more for the employment of unskilled individuals than anyone else... Look at the drop-out rates in schools and thank God we're out here" to provide jobs. The Fresno Farm Bureau says that "it's a fair trade-off" to have low-wage workers in exchange for low-priced food.
Farm workers generated about 35 percent of the 90,000 unemployment insurance claims in Fresno County in 2002, even though farming accounts for less than 15 percent of county employment. Hispanics, 44 percent of Fresno county residents, filed 70 percent of the Unemployment Insurance claims; whites, 40 percent of residents, filed 19 percent of UI claims. Over half of the UI claimants had not finished high school, and local observers say that many of the UI claimants also work for cash wages in agriculture.
Welfare benefits and UI provide a significant share of county income. Some $655 million came into the county via food stamps, Medi-Cal and cash aid in 2002, and UI benefits added $224 million. The number of Fresno county residents getting Food Stamps but not cash aid rose to 27,300 in May 2003 from 26,300 in March 1998, and the number getting Medi-Cal but not cash assistance rose to 122,100 from 69,700 over the same period.
About a third of the 1,000 families added to Fresno county welfare rolls each month move to Fresno from elsewhere. The More Opportunity for Viable Employment (MOVE) has since 1998 subsidized the movement of welfare recipients- those receiving cash aid, Food Stamps, and Medi-Cal--out of the San Joaquin Valley. In exchange for staying away at least 180 days, movers receive grants of $300 to $1,600. Tulare county sent 1,014 adults out of the county under the MOVE program between April 2001 and August 2003, and Fresno county sent 230. A separate Center for New Americans provides cash payments to refugees who leave the San Joaquin Valley.
In the mid-1970s, Fresno county's unemployment rate was one percent below the state rate, and the county's average income was about 90 percent of statewide levels. By 2002, Fresno county's unemployment rate was twice the state rate, and the county's average income was about 65 percent of statewide levels. The reasons most often cited for this change are immigration and more easily available welfare, plus the emigration of the best and brightest young people.
Some critics say that the "good years" between 1950 and 1975 were an illusion in the San Joaquin Valley because many farm workers were Braceros or were local workers who were not eligible for UI payments and thus not included in unemployment data. Agriculture was based on the assumption that workers would be available when needed at wages close to the minimum. With immigration providing that labor, wages were depressed.
The Fresno Regional Jobs 30-30 Initiative, unveiled in September 2003, aims to fundamentally restructure the region's economy to reduce dependence on agriculture by creating 30,000 jobs that pay $30,000 a year over the next five years. The goal is to welcome private industries that pay higher than average wages in construction, distribution, health care, back office information processing, manufacturing, tourism and water technology under the slogan, "Businesses go where they're wanted and stay where they're appreciated." http://www.fresnorji.org).
Air. The San Joaquin Valley has some of the nation's worst air, and dirty air may be hindering economic development, with some firms refusing to locate in the valley because of smog. Democratic Senator Dean Florez introduced 10 bills to clean up San Joaquin Valley air in February 2003 that would, for instance, require farmers to obtain air pollution permits for diesel-powered irrigation pumps--farmers have been exempted since 1976 from the need to obtain air operating permits. In addition, SB700 would require permits for confined-animal feeding operations such as dairies, and phase out the burning of agricultural waste between 2005 and 2010.
About 16 percent of Fresno county children suffer from asthma, the highest rate in California. The five US cities with the worst air, as measured by one-hour peak pollution levels, are Los Angeles, Fresno, Bakersfield, Visalia-Tulare and Houston. However, if air pollution is measured over eight-hour periods, the San Joaquin Valley has the nation's worst air, with September the worst month.
SB700 and several other clean-air bills were signed into law--California had to repeal the exemption of agriculture from clean air rules by November 2003 or face federal sanctions. Fresno, Tulare and Kings county supervisors voted 3-2 to oppose the clean-air bills in August 2003, deeming them too harmful to agriculture.
Politics. The 18-county Central Valley had six million residents in 2000, and they were 54 percent white; 30 percent Hispanic; seven percent Asian, and five percent Black. The Hispanic percentage is highest in Tulare county, 51 percent, and is about 45 percent in Fresno, Kings, Madera, and Merced counties; 85 percent of Valley Hispanics are of Mexican origin. The number of Hispanic elected officials is increasing, especially in the small cities that are over 90 percent Hispanic. However, none of the 12 Congressional representatives from the Central Valley are Hispanic.
Dinuba is one Valley city whose population changed much faster than its political leadership. In 1991, when the population of 12,500 was 60 percent Latino but no school board members were Hispanic, attorney Joaquin Avila sued local officials to change from at-large to district elections; Avila had won similar suits in Monterey county.
Parlier has been described as an "overgrown labor camp," since many of its residents work seasonally on area farms. Parlier has had Hispanic political leadership since the 1970s, but politics got messier, as fired Police Chief Martin Monica in August 2003 filed a suit against the city, charging that he was terminated for firing a sergeant married to a City Council member. Monica, who served as the city's police chief for about six months, was the 14th chief in 11 years.
Huron, incorporated in 1951, also has unstable politics. It has 6,000 residents, but usually grows to 9,000 during the summer months, but not in 2003. Residents dissatisfied with 30 percent unemployment and per capita incomes averaging $9,425 say its time for change, and are attempting to recall several city council members. Many residents cannot vote; there are often fewer than 600 votes cast on a candidate.
California got a $99 billion budget for 2003-04 that mostly postponed hard choices for another year by borrowing the $17 billion needed for the "balanced budget" required by the state's constitution. The $71 billion general fund includes $28 billion for K-12 schools. In the run-up to the October 7, 2003 recall election, the power of Indian tribes, who own casinos that generate $5 billion a year in revenues, became apparent in their political contributions.
The Central Valley is often the swing vote in statewide elections, dominated by Democrats from the 1930s to the 1960s, then Republicans, and in the 1990s swinging back to Democrats due to immigration and suburbanization. Democrat Gray Davis received a majority of Central Valley votes in 1998, but Republican Bill Simon Jr received a majority in 2002. About 3,600 state employees are appointed by the governor, and more than 700 of those require Senate confirmation
Governor Gray Davis, who was recalled October 7, 2003, with 55 percent voting to remove him from office, reversed a 2002 decision and signed into law SB 60 which allows unauthorized foreigners to apply for licenses by presenting federal taxpayer identification number and another form of ID, such as a matricula consular, and then having their photos taken and thumbprints recorded along with their physical description and address. Davis said: "Every day, hard-working immigrants work in our fields, put food on our table, clean our hotels and care for our seniors. These hard-working immigrants work, pay taxes and they deserve the right to drive to work."
Arnold Schwarzenegger, an Austrian immigrant who arrived in 1970, was elected to replace Davis; he received 49 percent of the vote. Schwarzenegger supported Proposition 187, the 1994 initiative that would have created a state-financed system to prevent unauthorized foreigners from obtaining state-funded services, and opposed giving driver's licenses to unauthorized foreigners.
Democrat Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, who received 32 percent of the vote, said US food "comes from ... immigrants who work hard every day. They pay their taxes. They stay out of trouble with the law. You know, for them not to be able to have a driver's license or to be able to put their kids in school is just plain wrong." Bustamante is from Delano, the site of Cesar Chavez's 25-day fast in 1968, is a city of 39,000 in Kern county that historically was divided by Highway 99, with whites on the east side and Hispanics on the west. Today 65 percent of residents are Hispanic, the unemployment rate tops 25 percent, and about 14 percent of residents have incomes of less than $10,000 a year. Delano has one prison, and is building a second.
Bustamante was elected to the Assembly in 1992, and initially opposed making farmers jointly liable with the FLCs who brought workers to their farms. Bustamante became speaker of the Assembly, fought for the creation of UC-Merced, and supported amending the ALRA to provide for mandatory mediation in 2002.
Bustamante's campaign director, Richie Ross, is also a lobbyist for the UFW: he and his daughter received $137,000 from the UFW between 2000 through June 2002. However, Ross had the Bustamante campaign pay $170,000 to the UFW turn out voters for the recall election; the UFW had total expenditures of $7.4 million in 2002. For the 5,100 members it reported, expenditures were equivalent to $1,500 per member. Marc Grossman, a self-employed UFW spokesman, rents office space in a building that Ross owns and heads the UFW's get-out-the-vote campaign. Grossman said that the Davis campaign paid the UFW $25,000 for rallies and voter efforts in 2002.
Housing. Vineyard Worker Services established a temporary shelter for 30 farm workers in 2002 in Santa Rosa, and another 26-bed shelter for the 2003 season at St. Leo's Catholic Church on Agua Caliente Road. Grants pay for trailers, grape harvesters pay $60 a week for housing and two meals, and growers subsidize camp operations with proceeds from a wine auction.
Napa county was sued in August 2003 by CRLA on behalf of "farm workers and their families" who lack affordable housing. Napa voters want to limit population growth to one percent a year, and much of the county's land is zoned for agricultural use, so the housing that is developed tends to be expensive.
According to HUD, the average rent in 2004 for a two-bedroom apartment is $1,121, about the same as in other coastal farming counties such as Monterey and Ventura http://www.huduser.org/datasets/fmr.html). In San Joaquin Valley farm counties such as Fresno, the average rent for a two-bedroom apartment is $600 a month. The median price of a California house reached $404,870 in August 2003; the US median house price was $177,500.
The state's Office of Migrant Services provides funds to operate 26 centers with 2,100 units of housing for 12,500 migrant farm workers and their families in 16 agricultural counties. The Williams Migrant Center provides housing for 100 families, for 180 days for $294.50 to $325.50 a month, including utilities. In addition to the onsite day care and other services, laundry facilities are provided. Tenants in OMS centers must have earned most of their earned income from farm work or food processing and have usual homes at least 50 miles from the center.
Salinas holds an annual Agricultural Worker Day on the last Sunday in August, attracting about 4,000 to an event that attracts service providers and vendors.
Paul Pringle, "Bustamante Advisor Walks a Fine Line in Dual Role," Los Angeles Times, October 5, 2003. Steve Wiegand, "Growing Impact: But Valley Latinos' progress still slow," Sacramento Bee, September 14-16, 2003. George Hostetter, "Broke ... and Broken," Fresno Bee, September 7, 2003. Mark Arax and Rhashad Pittman, "Clean Air Plan Causes a Dust-Up," Los Angeles Times, August 27, 2003.