Poverty an increasing problem in California’s agricultural areas

Nearly 25% of California farmworkers and their families live in poverty and almost 70% have no health insurance. Many face what academics call “food insecurity,” which means they’re going hungry and often wondering where the next meal is coming from. Since they have no insurance or extra money, any health issues probably go untreated.

Most farmworkers in California are Latino. In the San Joaquin Valley, the median income for such workers is a mere $18,000 a year and only 6.1% go to college and graduate. Sure, there will be some children of farmworkers who by hard work, determination, and maybe more than a little luck make the jump into the middle class and get better-paying, less hazardous, more stable jobs. Contrast that with Silicon Valley, with its median income of $45,000, where poverty is much less prevalent and most already are middle class or above, and it’s clear the children of farmworkers are at a major disadvantage when it comes to getting ahead. Yes, you can always get ahead in America. But your chances of doing so are vastly better if your parents already have.

The unemployment rate for the counties in the San Joaquin Valley ranges from 12-15%. In the similarly agricultural Imperial County, which borders Mexico, unemployment is a catastrophic 29%. And these are the official rates. They don’t count those who are no longer counted because they’ve been unemployed for so long.

Rural poor, I think, tend to be ignored more than urban poor. In big cities, it’s obvious where the disadvantaged areas are, and more people are watching. But the pockets of poverty out in the country are harder to spot. You mostly can’t even see them from the Interstates or major roads. But they are there, and are often ramshackle trailer parks where farmworkers pay rent to park their dilapidated mobile homes.

California Watch spotlights such conditions in the Coachella Valley, where there are over 125 illegal mobile home parks. The trailers are often literally falling apart, sanitation and potable water are an ongoing problem, and pollution from nearby industry fouls the air. In one such case, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control said it neglected to monitor hazardous waste shipment there for seven years and promised to do better in the future. Had the toxic waste been shipped to anywhere in Silicon Valley, I’m guessing the response would have been a tad quicker and more effective.

So, let’s just clean up the parks and regulate them better, right? Well, it’s not that simple. Many are on Indian land and not subject to state regulations, plus most own their mobile home. If the park gets re-located, the mobile home may be so rickety that it can’t be moved. Thus, many would lose everything.

A friend who has lived in Third World countries says we don’t know what poverty is here, as most in the US at least have electricity and running water. This may be true, but conditions in the Duroville mobile home park do approach Third World conditions. More than 50% have no hot water. One-third have no air-conditioning. Health and sanitation problems, as well as alcohol and drug addiction, are everywhere.

Residents are organizing, trying to get their voices heard. We should listen.