|POCKET OF POVERTY|
October 14 ,1999
SPENCER MICHELS: The residents of Madera, California, in the hot, agricultural
Central Valley, are in a frustrating struggle to catch up with the rest
of the economy. While the national unemployment rate hovers near 4 percent,
this town of 36,000 has been battered economically. Joblessness reaches
19 percent in the winter. And 33 percent of the population live below
the poverty line.
JIM TAUBERT: Our self-esteem is a little low right now.
SPENCER MICHELS: Jim Jaubert heads Madera's redevelopment agency. He
is perplexed by the economic forces that have laid his city and many
others low, while the rest of the country enjoys unprecedented boom
JIM TAUBERT: We've got a per capita income that has actually declined
during this period of national and state economic growth.
SPENCER MICHELS: The Department of Housing and Urban Development recently
identified Madera and dozens of other cities in 23 states as economically
distressed. The report said these places left behind in the new economy
are likely to face long-term economic troubles if they are not able
to address core problems now. Poverty in towns like this is not as obvious
as in Appalachia or the inner city. In fact, in Madera, some neighborhoods
have homes selling for as much as $160,000 or more. Similar homes would
cost two or three times more in San Francisco. Newcomers, seeking employment
in Madera or commuting to nearby Fresno, have come here seeking a lower
cost of living. But while towns like Madera may not look poor, the telltale
signs are just beneath the surface. The percentage of renters in Madera
is very high. At several sites throughout the town, free food is distributed
to the needy every week, and there's always plenty of takers. In Madera's
schools, 80 percent of the students are on free or subsidized lunches.
Free Head Start programs for the children of migrant farm workers are
operating at capacity. The people of Madera thought they were making
progress in solving their problem. Two new prisons nearby meant thousands
of jobs. And using civic efforts and tax incentives, the town attracted
new industry. But mysteriously, the level of poverty remained.
JIM TAUBERT: It doesn't make sense; but yet, I mean, we know those
statistics are accurate. We've had a tremendous amount of industrial
activity. In the last 18 months alone, we've had over...over 600,000
square feet of new manufacturing construction, creating three to five
hundred jobs ultimately at build-out.
JAMES GLYNN: Three hundred jobs is significant, but it doesn't nearly
cut into the total problem that we have.
SPENCER MICHELS: Sociologist James Glynn, who lives in Madera and writes
about its economic problems, explains that Madera is hobbled by its
JAMES GLYNN: Nationwide, less than 2 percent of the population is involved
with farming. Here in the Fresno/Madera area, it's 20 percent. These
are not areas that pay well, they are not areas of growth, not the kind
of things that would raise a standard of living or raise the per capita
income of a family.
SPENCER MICHELS: Part of that problem is that the population is growing
more rapidly than the job base. Many of the new residents are recent
immigrants, mostly from Mexico, attracted by family already here and
the expectation of farm jobs. Farm wages are low, and the work is seasonal,
leaving some workers without jobs much of the year. And even the seasonal
work is less available than it used to be. Also, these unskilled workers
cannot meet the demands of today's farming technology. On Rick Cosyns'
3,000-acre farm, just outside Madera, the almonds are harvested mechanically.
One man operates a shaker, reducing the number of workers. And mechanical
grape harvesters have replaced dozens of humans. Cosyns also says that
for the jobs that are available, many potential workers don't get hired
because they lack skills that farm jobs increasingly require.
RICK COSYNS, Farmer: Agriculture can no longer be asked to employ the
unskilled. As you can see by this equipment we have, it takes some skills
and coordination to run this, and now there's also mechanical pruners
that are being used widely in the industry, and I think more so that
we have an unskilled labor force that makes up the large portion of
the employment that's there.
SPENCER MICHELS: Justino Lopez does the hiring for Cosyns' farms.
JUSTINO LOPEZ: We have openings here almost all the time, because we
farm thousands ofacres. There's people there, but they're not the qualified
people, the people that come to better themselves.
SPENCER MICHELS: Those unable to get farm work are also unable to work
in any new industries that are attracted. More than a year ago, UpRight
opened this factory in Madera's industrial park to manufacture aerial
work platforms. It employs 200 workers, many of them highly skilled.
Soon it will expand and add another 300 employees. But upright's vice
president, Grant Melocik, has concerns about filling those jobs.
GRANT MELOCIK, Manager, UpRight, Inc.: To us, the unemployment problem
in this area is really a skills problem, not an unemployment problem.
Certainly, the unemployment rate indicates that there are many people
out there in need of jobs. When we interview them, they lack the skills,
especially for critical areas like welding or machinists or what we
would call end-of-the-line technicians.
SPENCER MICHELS: UpRight is addressing the problem itself. It is teaching
18 new workers and some entry-level job holders how to weld. In another
classroom, newcomers are taught the basics of electronics. Most of these
students have no college background. Head Start coordinator Carmen Garcia,
who has lived in Madera most of her life, thinks the town's youth must
be somehow inspired to move themselves up in the world.
CARMEN GARCIA: All these families, you know, their income is way below
the federal guidelines. That's why they qualify. I don't consider myself
low income. I'm one of the middle class, most of my family. So I think
if you're motivated enough, you can go from a lower class to a middle
and upper class, if you're motivated to continue on with your education.
SPENCER MICHELS: Getting an education has not been easy in Madera.
Until three years ago, there were few places to take classes past high
school. Now a community college has set up a center near town, and is
building a new campus, in an attempt to provide training. Sociologist
Glynn, who teaches there, thinks the college may solve another problem
for Madera: The lack of professional role models.
JAMES GLYNN: We're talking about, you know, accountants, engineers,
lawyers, physicians, that sort of thing. One of the problems with some
of the companies that have come into town, that have brought some jobs
here, is that the management of those companies don't live in Madera,
so that that element of the professional class is not here in the city
to be observed by the people and to be participating in the community
as a whole.
SPENCER MICHELS: Glynn says without professionals, the people in Madera
lack a vision of better jobs. He realizes that Madera is caught in a
Catch 22. The town's poor economy and image are keeping the professional
and entrepreneurial class away, just the people it needs to improve
itself. While the federal government has identified Madera and other
cities as poor, city officials say Madera can't look to the federal
government for help through tax incentives for businesses and other
aid programs. That's the opinion of Bob Brown, the town's assistant
BOB BROWN: Most of the federal programs have... the ones that they're
talking about here, have so many strings, so many guidelines, that...
and so many auditing requirements and monitoring requirements and reporting
requirements, that that small agencies like Madera, we don't have the
staff, we don't have the expertise to be able to not only apply for
the funds, but if we're successful in competing for them, getting those
funds to apply them in our communities.
SPENCER MICHELS: In the meantime, Brown and others say they'll continue to wage a kind of private war on poverty despite the frustration over how difficult it is to bridge the gap between the booming economy and places like Madera that have been left behind.