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January 2001, Volume 7, Number 1

San Joaquin: Elections, Jobs, Poverty

Actor Alan Autry, a.k.a. Bubba, the fictional good-old-boy cop who played alongside Carroll O'Connor in the TV series "In the Heat of the Night," was elected mayor of Fresno; with 420,000 residents it is the largest city in the San Joaquin Valley and the sixth largest city in California. Autry promised improvements in Fresno Unified Schools, the state's fourth-largest district, asking for the power to name school board trustees, a power which has also been given to the mayor of Oakland. Dan Whitehurst, a two-term mayor of Fresno, lost to Autry.

Democrat Cal Dooley beat Republican Rich Rodriguez in a Fresno-area Congressional race marked by Dooley's opposition and Rodriguez's support for a new guest worker program. Groups such as the California Farm Bureau Federation and the Nisei Farmers League supported Rodriguez because of his support for guest workers.

Some of the small farm worker cities in Fresno county had complete changeovers in elected officials. For example, the 745 voters in Huron, a city of 5,900, replaced four of five city council members. Incumbent city council members were defeated in Coalinga, Firebaugh, Mendota and Parlier. Sanger, with 70 percent Hispanic residents, has an all-Hispanic city council for the first time.

Jobs. The unemployment rate in Fresno county in October 2000 was 13 percent, and was higher in many farm worker cities, including 14 percent in Huron and 19 percent in Avenal. The county created Workforce Connection, a new one-stop center in Manchester Center designed to link almost 100,000 unemployed Fresno County residents with services in a mall set up --clients can be referred to one of several social service agencies in the mall.

There is widespread agreement that there is a jobs problem in the San Joaquin Valley. The usual assessment is that the San Joaquin Valley has a strong agricultural base, high unemployment, and a work force in need of more training to earn higher wages and obtain steadier employment. The normal recommendation to boost the economic fortunes of the lagging San Joaquin Valley are to: (1) foster the creation of value-added businesses linked to agriculture, from biotech industries that create new seeds to value-added commodity processing; and (2) recruit call centers and warehouses, industries that do not require highly educated workers.

Fresno County has 6,400 call center and data processing jobs and expects more, as call centers move into the area to take advantage of workers eager for jobs that generally pay $7 to $9 an hour. Many employers nonetheless complain of labor shortages at all rungs of the job ladder. One expert noted that half of the unemployed in many San Joaquin Valley counties have not completed high school.

President Clinton in October 2000 created the Interagency Task Force on the Economic Development of the Central San Joaquin Valley to foster cooperation between representatives of 16 federal agencies and accelerate development in the San Joaquin Valley; an annual report is due by September 15, 2001. The federal government's Healthy People 2010 initiative aims to reduce the health gap between ethnic and racial groups, and one way to do that, according to the project, is to increase job opportunities.

The federal government is making what some hope will be keystone investments in the San Joaquin Valley. USDA in October 2000 unveiled a $23 million San Joaquin Valley Agricultural Sciences Center in Parlier, a 125-acre complex that includes 80,000 square feet of offices, labs and greenhouses. UC already operates the Kearney Agricultural Center nearby.

Some employers are tapping the state's Employment Training Program for funds to retrain workers; the money comes from a surtax on employer UI payments. Since the ETP began in 1982, some $670 million has been spent to train 350,000 people, two-thirds in manufacturing.

Poverty/Welfare. Poverty rates increased in many San Joaquin Valley counties in the late 1990s, even as the poverty rate for California fell from 17 percent in 1993 to 16 percent in 1997. Current Population Survey data showed that 21 percent of Madera county residents were poor in 1993 and 23 percent in 1997. In neighboring Fresno county, 28 percent of residents were poor in 1993 and 26 percent in 1997.

Californians for Family Economic Self-Sufficiency released a report in November 2000 that defined a self-sufficiency standard, the hourly earnings for full-time work needed to achieve "economic independence." Minimum hourly earnings in California counties, according to the CFESS, ranged from $13 an hour to $20 an hour for a mother with two children, or $26,000 to $40,000 a year. For more information: Sufficiency Standard

The US Census Bureau released estimates of income and poverty for the 50 states and 3,141 US counties in November 2000. Median household income was $39,595 for all California households in 1997 and ranged from a low of $23,359 in Imperial county to a high of $60,967 in Marin county. For more information:

An estimated 5.2 million Californians, 16 percent, had incomes below the poverty line in 1997. Imperial county had the highest percentage of poor residents, 30 percent; followed by Tulare, 28 percent; and Fresno, 26 percent. There were 2.2 million children under 18 in households with below poverty-level incomes, 25 percent of all those under 18 in the state. The child poverty rate was 44 percent in Imperial county, 40 percent in Tulare county and 38 percent in Fresno county.

Lockheed Martin IMS is the largest US provider of welfare and work-force services, with 31 welfare-to-work programs around the US. Fresno county signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin in December 2000 that will pay the firm $8.6 million to train and find jobs for more than 4,500 job-seekers- Lockheed Martin will operate Job Seeker and Employment Services in one-stop career centers serving Fresno, Clovis, Calwa, Malaga, Pinedale and northeast county foothill communities. Proteus provides welfare-to-work services in rural areas of Fresno county.

In some cases, it may be easier for jobless residents to leave the San Joaquin Valley than to wait for jobs to be created. For example, Tulare county includes several small cities with very high unemployment rates. Lindsay, with 9,200 residents, suffered from a citrus freeze in 1990, followed by the closure of the largest employer, Lindsay Olive Growers, 350 jobs, and then the closure of the third largest employer General Cable, which put 150 out of work.

MOVE, or More Opportunities for Viable Employment, helped 654 families leave Tulare County between October 1998 and October 2000. Frank Escobar, MOVE program coordinator at Services for Education and Employment, which contracts with Tulare County to manage the program, noted that employers from Las Vegas and Colorado ski areas are active recruiters, offering wages that range from $8 to $10 an hour and benefits for full-time work.

West Side. The west side of the San Joaquin Valley began to grow crops in the 1960s, when water became available. Most of farms are large, typically with more than 1,000 acres, and they became more labor-intensive in the 1980s and 1990s as vegetables replaced some cotton and other field crops. The small towns that developed along Interstate 5 typically include mostly farm workers, some of whom commute long distances to farm jobs.

Five Points is one such town, with a local school that pulls students from a dozen farm-labor housing camps scattered across 154 square miles. About 20 students live close enough to walk; the remainder are bused.

Mendota, a city of 8,000 on the west side, typically has an unemployment rate of 25 to 35 percent. Candidates for city council noted that the shift of jobs from packing houses to fields lowered average wages, eliminating jobs in packing houses that enabled some workers to earn $10 to $15 an hour in favor of field worker jobs closer to the minimum wage. The city lost its police department in 1991, during a budget crisis.

West-Side cities in the northern San Joaquin Valley have benefited from the Bay area economic boom. The population of Tracy, about 60 miles east of San Francisco, tripled between 1980 and 2000, as BAT's, Bay Area Transplants, moved in to take advantage of lower housing prices. One rule of thumb is that each mile east of San Francisco lowers the price of a standard house by $5,000, so that a $680,000 house in San Carlos becomes $225,000 in Tracy and $161,000 in Manteca.

Meth. The Central Valley's Bee newspapers on October 8, 2000 published a special report on methamphetamine, also known as meth, speed, crank, crystal and ice, much of which is produced and consumed in agricultural areas of California. Nine counties of the Central Valley have been designated as a High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area.

There are two major reasons for meth production in rural America. First, there are generally little used buildings available for meth production, and second, commonly used farm chemicals such as anhydrous ammonia are available to make meth. The manufacturing process smells bad, also favoring rural production. The state pledged an additional $50 million in 2001-02 to the Central Valley High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area task force, and the federal government held a summit in January 2000 in Fresno to deal with meth production and distribution.

Taxes. In 1992, when California faced a $14 billion deficit, the state government reduced support of the state's 58 counties by nearly $3 billion annually and shifted that property tax revenue to local schools. The state-mandated shift reduced the counties' share of property taxes from 33 to 20 percent, and forced reductions in a wide range of county-provided services.

The counties sued the state, contending that the shift violated a provision of the state Constitution prohibiting the state from ordering local government to provide services without providing the money for them. They sued to recover the amount of the revenue shift for 1993-98, which totals about $15 billion. However, a Court of Appeal in November 2000 concluded that "The state is not obligated to reimburse local governments for the challenged change in allocation of property tax revenues among local entities."

Russell Clemings, "Valley poverty rate rises as state's falls," Fresno Bee, November 23, 2000. Jo Thomas, "Illegal Drug's Manufacture Puts Rural Areas at Risk," New York Times, November 11, 2000.