Tough Economic Times In Fresno For some people in California's central valley, life resembles scenes from The Grapes of Wrath. A report called "Measure of America" names Fresno, Calif., the least economically developed part of the country. Opportunities to make a decent living can be very hard to find there due to drought and unemployment.
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Tough Economic Times In Fresno

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Tough Economic Times In Fresno

Tough Economic Times In Fresno

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When we talk about the least developed places in the world we kind of think about Afghanistan or maybe Bangladesh. You don't think about that term least developed applied here in the U.S.


But a new study called Measure of America looks at social development within this country. New York's Upper East Side is the most developed. No surprise there, but the result for the least developed region is a bit more unexpected. It's not Appalachia. It's not the Mississippi Delta. It's California's Central Valley. As part of our California Dreaming series Philip Martin reports.

PHILIP MARTIN: Life for farm worker Felipe Jesus Perez(ph) illustrates why Fresno County, California is at the bottom of the American Human Development Index.

Mr. FELIPE JESUS PEREZ (Fresno Resident): I'm worried that - I have three kids, my wife and I don't have a job. We don't find any kind of job for my wife. She's doing some applications in different. Nobody call her.

MARTIN: When he was 19 and living in Mexico, Perez says he dreamed of coming to California. Now at aged 39 and a legal resident, he's still ecstatic about the Golden State. But his current dream is simply to have a job in an area where seasonally adjusted unemployment stands at a shocking 30 percent.

Mr. PEREZ: This affects my life because, you know, the people they live around here - they live by farming. They are losing their jobs because of the water.

MARTIN: Massive drought is the latest calamity to hit California, central valley and what over the past ten years has been a confluence of misery beginning in 1999 with flooding and then the mortgage crises and gas crises. Jose Antonio Ramirez is city manager for the town of Firebaugh. That's its real name and on this day it's 108 degrees. We're driving along a road line with corn stalks that stand stoic like soldiers until you take a closer look.

Mr. JOSE ANTONIO RAMIREZ (City Manager, Firebaugh): Right now what you have is you have farms that are being fallowed because they are not receiving the sufficient supply of water and those plants shrivel and die. And what is that doing to our community? Well you have hundreds of people that are being let go and so it's a domino effect that's going to really hurt us bad and we're actually scared.

MARTIN: Ramirez who came to the U.S. from Mexico as a child is the son of farm workers. Almost everyone around here is. He hands me a peach as an example of the kinds of crops his 60-year-old mother picks on a almost daily basis.

Mr. RAMIREZ: That peach that I just gave you there? She gave them to me yesterday and she's working in this 108 degree weather.

MARTIN: People here die young. In fact on average they live four and a half years fewer on this earth than residents of Manhattan's Upper East Side. Fresno itself, California's sixth largest city, is dealing with another set of problems that complicates its development. On one side of downtown a new ultramodern city hall, a Starbucks and a well-groomed park.

(Soundbite of a train)

MARTIN: Across these railroad tracks is an actual shanty town. Tarps over cardboard, scraps of metal here and there covered by plastic. It looks like a scene out of Soweto which seems to grow larger by the month, says Ramirez, who sits on a municipal Homelessness Advisory Committee. He stops the car to speak with a man who calls himself E. who complains that the city does not keep its promises to the poor.

E: They've been allocating money for the homeless for years and they ain't been doing nothing for the homeless, you know.

MARTIN: How long have you yourself been without a home?

E: I'm not really homeless in heart. You see what I'm saying? Because I choose to be out here with these people. You have to stand up for something and be counted for something. These people are my people. This is West Fresno. This is where I was raised and born.

MARTIN: But almost everyone one else in this county was born way outside of the sprawling area. West of the Sierra Nevada and South of Sacramento. More than 80 ethnic communities call Fresno home. They include residents from Mexico, India, Armenia and South-East Asia. Last year these groups helped elect to the Fresno City Council a man named Blong Xiong who was born on a Thai refugee camp. He's now council president. Xiong pounders the irony that his adopted city is listed dead last on the development scale often used to measure societies like the one from which he came.

Mr. BLONG XIONG (City Council President, Fresno): We speak over 87 different languages and it's usually these communities that end up into the lower echelon because they're transitioning and they end up living in areas of poverty and that's what they can afford.

MARTIN: Only half of the households in this area have annual incomes above 17,000 dollars. The authors of the Human Development Report say that education is key to rising out of poverty. Only 57 percent of students graduate from high school and even smaller group, just six and a half percent, have graduated from college. And one who did is 36-year-old Jose Antonio Ramirez. In fact he has a Masters degree. He's now working to get his seven siblings through college.

Mr. RAMIREZ: We're just driving to the home of the Fresno State Bulldogs. This is my Alma matter. I call it the rubber band effect. Once you have a taste of Fresno you leave but you bounce right back.

(Soundbite of beep)

MARTIN: We're here to see Ramirez's mentor, Professor Luis Gonzalez, Dean of the School of Social Sciences. She and others are struggling to change the sad statistical reality reflected in the American Human Development Report.

Professor LUIS GONZALES (Dean, School of Social Sciences): When I was in college here in the 70s you could count Latinos and African-Americans in one hand and now we're 35 percent Latino, you know, we're a 51 percent minority. This university is probably the best represented university in terms of diversity. Representative of the population of California than any other campus.

MARTIN: Farm worker Felipe Jesus Perez whom we met earlier wants his three young children to go to Fresno State one day. He doesn't want to see them working these fields. So to encourage them, he takes his kids to Firebaugh's small library.

Mr. PEREZ: We go there every week with the kids Tuesday and Thursday. We went the library.

MARTIN: Felipe is limping through the community garden. His foot was crushed in a cotton thrasher six years ago. He raises his cane and smiles pointing to the crops he's grown for his family.

Mr. PEREZ: This is corn. This is pea. Watermelon.

MARTIN: Felipe says he and his wife Arasally (ph) are growing fresh fruits and vegetables on a patch of arid earth where some said crops could never grow given the water crises. Perhaps a fitting metaphor for the effort by many in Fresno County to make this a land of plenty for themselves. Despite drought and unemployment, Felipe and his neighbors say this is still their California dream. For NPR News I'm Philip Martin.

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