Farm Workers' Low Wages Hinder San Joaquin Valley's Economy

If you look at the jobs picture across the U.S., one place stands out for high levels of unemployment: Central California's San Joaquin Valley. It's been called the Appalachia of the West.

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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

OK, that's the national picture. Let's zoom in on a region that stands out for its high unemployment, Central California's San Joaquin Valley. NPR's Kelly McEvers went to find out why it's so hard to get a job amid some of the most productive farmland on earth.

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UNIDENTIFIED MAN 1: Employment Development Department, work force services.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It's first thing in the morning. And people are calling and lining up to sign up for unemployment benefits and look for jobs.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN 2: (Spanish spoken).

MAN 1: Yeah, yes. (Spanish spoken).

MCEVERS: Even before the economic downturn, Fresno County's numbers were not good. But now unemployment in this area is double the national average - 6 to 7 percent nationwide, 11 to 12 percent here in Fresno. And that's an improvement over recent years.

STEPHEN GUTIERREZ: Twelve-point-nine in 2013, 15 percent in 2012, 2011 we had an average of 16.4. 2010, 16.7.

MCEVERS: That's Stephen Gutierrez with the Employment Department's information division. He say of the 10 cities with the highest unemployment in the U.S., more than half of them are regularly here in the San Joaquin Valley, a place just under 200 miles, but a world away from cities like San Francisco and San Jose on the coast.

Analysts say that's because this region's economy is dominated by one thing - agriculture, the grape, cotton, nut and citrus farms that generate crops worth billions of dollars a year and help feed the country. Fresno State political science professor Jeff Cummins says a single dominant industry like this can be a curse.

JEFF CUMMINS: The value of agricultural production here is certainly a significant portion of the overall statewide economy. But I think it's not an industry that is going to lend itself to a booming economy or these spillover effects.

MCEVERS: Farmers, or growers as they're called here, might make good profits from farming. But farm workers - by and large immigrants, most of them undocumented - make so little, like 9 or $10 an hour, that they don't spend any money in the local economy.

CUMMINS: So if you think about those workers going out and spending their money on just ordinary everyday expenses, it's not going to be like somebody in Silicon Valley, who has a much higher salary, much more disposable income.

MCEVERS: That means businesses can't survive, houses don't get built and investors stay away. None of this is to say that a farm economy is bad. In the Midwest, there is not such a big disconnect between owners and workers. And there's more ag-related business, like making tractors and processing meat, that spurs growth and investment. There are a few other industries here in the San Joaquin Valley - call centers, prisons, small manufacturing. But again, the low wages paid to workers don't spur growth in other industries. Alfredo Nolasco worked for 16 years as the team leader in the paint shop of a security camera maker just outside Fresno. He made $19.50 an hour until.

ALFREDO NOLASCO: They laid me off the 4 of January, 2013.

MCEVERS: Really, why?

NOLASCO: According to them, my position was no longer needed.

MCEVERS: Now he's at the employment office because his benefits recently stopped. I ask Nolasco if he's ever thought about moving to a place like Silicon Valley where there are more jobs.

NOLASCO: I've thought about it. But, you know, I start factoring the price of living here and there and trying to find a place to stay in the meantime. So there's just a lot of little factors that kind of deter me from doing that.

MCEVERS: Recent studies suggest the reason you can have such a depressed economy like Fresno near such a booming economy like Silicon Valley is because Americans are moving less than we used to. Some economists have even proposed that unemployment payments should be higher if you move and try to find work. Nolasco says it makes sense.

NOLASCO: I believe that's something to think about, yeah.

MCEVERS: One thing people here point to as a way to break out of the cycle of low wages, high unemployment and a stagnating economy is a $68 billion high-speed rail project approved by California voters in 2008. The plan, portions of which are still being presented to the public in town-hall-style meetings, is to connect San Francisco to Los Angeles along a route that would run, not on the coast, but inland through the San Joaquin Valley. While the construction and maintenance of the rail might bring some jobs, people here say it could make it easier for people to commute to the coast. But that project is being fought in the courts, and even if it goes through, it's not slated to be finished until 2029. Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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