Valley’s smaller towns hit hardest by economy (four of top ten are from Fresno County)
By Kurtis Alexander– The Fresno Bee
Sunday, Dec. 09, 2012 | 10:00 PM
Fresno’s high rate of poverty has grabbed headlines and dominated discussion of the nation’s poor.
But California’s fifth-largest city, where 1 in 4 lives below the federal poverty line, is far better off — statistically speaking — than its smaller neighbors in the San Joaquin Valley.
The city of Huron, population 6,733, is the poorest city in the state, according to new census data. The city’s median household income is $22,969, almost half of Fresno’s $43,440 per household and one-third of the state’s $61,632 per household.
A mostly farmworker community near Interstate 5, Huron is among several rural cities within an hour’s drive of Fresno that rank as California’s poorest. San Joaquin and Mendota, similarly located on the Valley’s west side, also have household incomes that are among the state’s five lowest.
The hardship of these communities is nothing new. But the data released last week by the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show just how tough the conditions are. The data represent five years worth of census surveys, between 2007 and 2011, and provide a picture of small cities that most data sets are too thin to offer.
“It’s hard here,” said Juanita Veliz, a lifelong resident of Huron. “I feel for the people.”
Most in Huron are hard-working and try to do the best for their families, Veliz said, but a lack of jobs and the seasonal positions in agriculture make it tough to earn a living.
“The lines are always long at the food drives,” she said.
Huron City Manager Gerald Forde said the agriculture industry, which provides about 70% of the city’s jobs, hasn’t provided enough work in recent years to accommodate the labor supply. He attributes this to changes in farming technology, water shortages and evolving market conditions.
Underlying the city’s economic struggle, nearly half of Huron’s residents are foreign born and 98% speak primarily Spanish, according to census figures.
The city, whose population grows by several thousand during the warmer harvest months, sits east of the interstate and is surrounded by miles of row crops and vegetables, such as lettuce and cotton.
At City Hall, Forde and the City Council are working to bring new businesses and job opportunities to Huron. A Family Dollar store, which opened this year, marks a small success.
Across the nation, small cities on the outskirts of large metro areas have seen bigger rises in the number of poor recently than the inner city, says Elizabeth Kneebone, a fellow at the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution who studies poverty.
“It’s not that urban poverty went away, it’s just that we’re increasingly seeing poverty in the suburban areas,” she said.
Much of this shift, Kneebone said, can be explained by the small-town jobs that dried up with the recession and generally weren’t replaced. In bigger cities, by contrast, there were more jobs and different industries to fall back on during the downturn.
In Fresno, the poverty rate stands at 25.9%. That compares to 47.4% in Huron, according to the new census data. Huron’s poverty level is statistically no different than the state high of 49.7% in San Joaquin or Mendota’s 47.5%.
The poverty level varies with family size and makeup, but for an average household of two parents and two children, the poverty line last year was $22,811 of income.
Another telltale sign of poverty, Kneebone said, is a lack of education, which factors heavily into how well people can provide for themselves and their family.
Lack of education
In Huron, 75% of the adults don’t have a high school diploma. That’s the most without a high school education of all California cities, according to the census data.
San Joaquin, Arvin (Kern County), Mendota and Orange Cove (Fresno County) round out the five cities with the highest percentages of people without diplomas in the state.
In the city of Fresno, by contrast, about 25% of adults are not high-school educated.
By sheer numbers, Fresno still has more people living in poverty than the county’s rural cities. But Fresno also has more rich and middle-class residents, which means more tax dollars and job opportunities to benefit the community as a whole.
“You have fairly rapid growth in the suburban populations but there may not be the safety-net services in these municipalities,” Kneebone said. “In the suburban areas, they have this additional challenge.”
Ismael Herrera, director of the San Joaquin Valley Rural Development Center at Fresno State, said a lot is being done to assist the Valley’s smaller communities.
State and federal grants are helping cities build affordable housing. Churches commonly offer free meals. And nonprofits sometimes help residents pay their bills.
“Thankfully, we have a lot of partners,” said Herrera, who is a resident of Mendota. “And as neighbors we try to do our part to make sure our neighbor across the street or our neighbors next door have enough to get by on. If my father has some tomatoes he got from work, he might share them. The neighbor down the street might share some corn.”
But most critical to the well-being of these communities, Herrera said, is getting residents to stand on their own financially.
His university-backed program is helping coordinate vocational efforts at rural high schools and community colleges — to prepare people for jobs in the trades, water management and manufacturing, many outside of agriculture.
His program also is working with homegrown businesses, to help them expand.
“You start building the wealth in one household and all of a sudden you see the wealth of the community start to build,” Herrera said. “There’s opportunity for growth and prosperity here.”
California’s poorest cities
Many of the cities with the lowest annual median household incomes are small cities in the Central San Joaquin Valley.
1. Huron $22,969
2. Weed (Siskiyou County $25,659
3. San Joaquin $25,702
4. Mendota $25,807
5. Tulelake (Siskiyou County) $26,389
6. Fort Jones (Siskiyou County) $26,875
7. Orange Cove $27,642
8. Westmorland (Imperial County) $28,375
9. Clearlake (Lake County) $28,604
10. Avenal $29,183
Source: U.S. Census Bureau