FRESNO, Calif. -- Three metropolitan areas in California's Central Valley, the region with the highest farm revenues in the country, rank among the poorest in the state and nation, Census figures released Thursday show.
Fresno, Modesto and Bakersfield-Delano areas are among the top five U.S. regions with the highest percentage of residents living below the poverty line.
The Fresno area, ranked as the second most impoverished in the nation, trailed only the U.S.-Mexico border area of McAllen-Edinburg-Mission, Texas, the American Community Survey figures show.
Bakersfield-Delano and Modesto ranked fourth and fifth. The data compared large metro areas in 2011 of half million people or more.
The valley's poverty rate is high even though its agricultural productivity is soaring. California is home to a $35 billion agricultural industry and Fresno County produces more than $5.6 billion in agricultural products. One in four people in the county lived under the poverty line in 2011.
In California, one in six residents lived in poverty. California's poverty rate went up slightly, from 15.8 to 16.6 percent. Median income fell from $59,540 in 2010 to $57,287 in 2011.
In Fresno County, median income fell from $46,479 to $42,807. Unemployment in the county rose to 16 percent and food stamp use increased to nearly 18 percent.
By comparison, the statewide unemployment rate is 12 percent, and California's food stamp use is placed at 8 percent.
While Fresno's poverty rate declined by a percentage point in 2011 to 25.8 percent – a statistically insignificant decrease – it ranked as the poorest metro area in the state for the second year in a row.
Experts say the poverty problem in the nation's agricultural powerhouse is deeply ingrained. The most important barrier is the valley's lack of economic diversity. There are simply too few good non-agricultural jobs around and jobs in agriculture tend to be low-wage ones – except for those who run agribusinesses.
"It's a pretty ag-heavy region, so the inequality of wages and the opportunity to earn better wages is really skewed," said Caroline Farrell, executive director of the Delano-based Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment. "If you own a farm, you're apt to earn more wealth, while if you're a farmworker, don't earn very much."
The valley has not been able to bring or retain many new companies partly because it lacks a qualified workforce, said Atonio Avalos, associate professor of economics at Fresno State University.
"We have an issue of skills mismatch," Avalos said. "Companies may be offering jobs, but the skills of people in the valley are not ones they are looking for."
Students who want to get a college degree face many barriers, he said, and public funding for education is being slashed. Those who do graduate leave to find jobs elsewhere.
The valley also doesn't offer attractive amenities and has serious problems such as air pollution that have gone unaddressed.
"If you're a doctor or engineer, there are other places where you can make good money and live in better conditions," Avalos said. "Many people don't come here or leave because of the high incidence of asthma and other respiratory problems."
Valley leaders, said Farrell of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment, need to decide whether to break the poverty cycle by investing more in schools, educating children of color and encouraging them to go to college.
"There's a class and racial divide here," she said, "and we need to decide how we are going to change that."
Workers are not reaping the gains of their extra productivity.
Worker productivity grew 11 times more quickly than worker pay between 1979 and 2011: While <a href="http://stateofworkingamerica.org/key-findings/" target="_hplink">worker productivity rose 69 percent</a>, median hourly compensation rose just 6.5 percent, according to the Economic Policy Institute. [Chart credit: <a href="http://stateofworkingamerica.org/chart/swa-wages-figure-4u-change-total-economy/" target="_hplink">Economic Policy Institute</a>]
CEO pay has skyrocketed.
Maybe it's time to consider your CEO's massive pay package as a cut out of your own paycheck. <a href="http://stateofworkingamerica.org/wages/" target="_hplink">CEO pay is more than 200 times</a> that of a typical worker, up from 30 times that of a typical worker in the late 1970s, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
There aren't enough jobs.
At its current rate of job creation, the U.S. will not return to its pre-recession unemployment rate of around 5 percent before 2020, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
Job growth was slow even before the recession.
From the Economic Policy Institute: "The business cycle from 2000-2007 is the weakest full business cycle on record for job creation, due to the fact that demand was insufficient to drive overall GDP gains that were robust enough to generate strong job growth." It appears that the middle class squeeze has hurt job creation and economic growth.
We are poorer than we could be.
Households in the middle fifth of income distribution would have been making $18,897 more per year as of 2007 if their incomes had grown as quickly as overall average incomes between 1979 and 2007, according to the Economic Policy Institute. (The sizable income growth for top earners since 1979 skewed the overall average.)
The rich have captured most income growth.
The top one percent captured 60 percent of total income growth between 1979 and 2007, while the bottom 90 percent was left with just 9 percent of the total, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Moreover, the top one percent's incomes rose 241 percent, in contrast to 11 percent growth for the bottom fifth and 19 percent growth for the middle fifth. [Chart credit: <a href="http://stateofworkingamerica.org/chart/swa-income-figure-2a-real-median-family/" target="_hplink">Economic Policy Institute</a>]
Wages have grown more quickly for the rich.
Wages for the top one percent spiked 131 percent between 1979 and 2010, while wages for the bottom 90 percent of workers rose just 15 percent over that same period, according to the Economic Policy Institute. [Chart credit: <a href="http://stateofworkingamerica.org/chart/swa-wages-figure-4h-change-real-annual-wages/" target="_hplink">Economic Policy Institute</a>]
The poorest Americans are earning less than in 1979.
Americans in the bottom tenth of the wage distribution earned less last year than the lowest earners did in 1979, accounting for inflation, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Meanwhile, the real wages of the median worker rose only 6 percent between 1979 and 2011.
The American Dream is eroding.
"Families headed by early baby boomers (born between 1945-1954) are the last generation (on average) to achieve higher living standards than the one that preceded them," the Economic Policy Institute says. Among families with incomes below $28,000 in 1994, less than 1 percent made it to the top fifth of incomes 10 years later, according to the Economic Policy Institute.
This has been a lost decade.
On average, hourly pay has not grown at all since 2002 for workers with a college degree or with only a high school degree, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Wages have not grown for college graduates in nearly every occupation, and college graduates in the 70th income percentile or lower have had stagnant or falling wages since 2000. [Chart credit: <a href="http://stateofworkingamerica.org/chart/swa-wages-figure-4a-change-total-economy/" target="_hplink">Economic Policy Institute</a>]