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July 2004, Volume 10, Number 3

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California: San Joaquin Valley, Refugees

California had a labor force of 17.5 million in 2003, including 16.3 million employed workers and 1.2 million unemployed workers, for an average annual unemployment rate of 6.7 percent. There were 14.8 million wage and salary workers, including an average 375,000 in agriculture. Average farm employment (summed over 12 months and divided by 12) peaked at 413,000 in 1997, and has been trending downward since 2000.

Unemployment in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley, which stretches 200 miles from Bakersfield to Stockton, is typically twice the state's rate, and rarely drops below 10 percent. To reduce persisting unemployment, the Fresno Regional Jobs Initiative aims to create 30,000 net new jobs-- above the current rate of job creation--that pay at least $30,000 a year. If successful, the Initiative would reduce Fresno county's unemployment rate to the statewide average by creating jobs in health care, agile manufacturing and distribution. Currently, the three leading sectors of employment in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley are government (260,000 employees in 2002), agriculture (225,000) and health services (85,000).

Despite double-digit unemployment rates, some San Joaquin Valley employers report shortages of workers. Hospitals, for example, say they cannot find RNs despite offering entry-level salaries of $45,000 to $55,000 a year [There are 450 RNs per 100,000 people in the San Joaquin Valley compared to a US average of 800- half of US RNs work in hospitals]. Ruiz Foods in Dinuba is building a plant in Tulare and adding 300 employees to its 1,600 workers, and vice president Steve Windle says that Ruiz wants workers to have "math and reading at a sixth-grade level, show up, have a willingness to work, pass a drug test and [be] absence-free for the first 60 days."

A third of San Joaquin Valley adults do not have a high-school diploma- there are two high school drop outs for every college graduate.

Many San Joaquin Valley cities have sought prisons as an economic stimulus. In Mendota, where more than a third of workers are jobless, a 1,300 inmate federal facility just south of the city is expected to provide jobs for 325 guards. However, in most small San Joaquin Valley cities with prisons, many guards do not live in the city. For example, only six percent of those employed at a state facility in Chowchilla, and a third of those employed at a facility in Coalinga, live in these communities. Some believe that prisons, instead of creating jobs, discourage investors from moving to the San Joaquin Valley.

Hispanic youth are more likely to drop out of high school than other youth but, among those who finish high school, Hispanics are as likely to go to college as other high school graduates. However, only 23 percent of Latino college freshmen earn bachelor's degrees by age 26, compared to 47 percent of whites and 51 percent of Asians; 30 percent of Black college freshmen earn bachelor's degrees by age 26. Across the US, about 58 percent of those who begin four-year colleges earn bachelor's degrees within six years. The graduation rate at University of California is 78 percent and at the 23-campus Cal State system 42 percent [60 percent taking into account transfers to other colleges].

Refugees. Some 3,000 of the 15,000 Hmong refugees coming to the US in summer 2004 are expected to settle in the Fresno area, swelling the area's Hmong population to 25,000. All of the new arrivals must have US sponsors, usually relatives already in the US. One impact is expected to be overcrowding in Fresno-area housing. For example, one Hmong family with eight people in a three-bedroom home planned to house an additional 20 relatives at least temporarily.

The Office of Refugee Resettlement will give each refugee $400 within seven days of arrival. This is too little for a deposit on an apartment--rents for a two-bedroom apartment in Fresno range from $450 to $950 a month, so most refugees will have to rely on relatives to co-sign leases.

Some Southeast Asian farmers in the San Joaquin Valley were reportedly planting marijuana among their specialty crops in 2004, especially cherry tomatoes, which have leaves similar to marijuana leaves. Some $40 million worth of marijuana was discovered in raids, four times the value of Asian vegetables in 2003, and most of those arrested were from lowland areas of Laos. The San Joaquin Valley also has Hmong farmers from highland areas of Laos, many of whom have had a harder time integrating.

The Southeast Asian community seems to be segmenting into superachievers and gang members. Some say that half of the second-generation Southeast Asian immigrants in the San Joaquin Valley go to college, and the other half wind up in dead-end jobs or in gangs and welfare dependency.

Manuel Munoz's book Zigzagger (Northwestern University Press) is a collection of stories about the shift from Okies to Mexicans in 380,000-resident Tulare county in the 60 years since Steinbeck's Grapes of Wrath.

Lisa Aleman-Padilla, "Valley farmers growing more jobs," Fresno Bee, June 15, 2004. Vanessa Colon and Susie Vang, "First wave hits Valley, Merced Sun, June 28, 2004. Vanessa Colon, "Hmong refugees may encounter lack of housing," Fresno Bee, June 11, 2004. Mark Arax, " As Prices Fall, Farmers Turn to Illegal Cash Crops," Los Angeles Times, May 12, 2004. Carol Mithers, "The Dreamer," Los Angeles Times Magazine, May 2, 2004.