By Elizabeth Zach, RCAC staff writer

Consuelo Andrade
Consuelo Andrade outside of her home in Tulare County, California.

Two years ago, Consuelo Andrade was living in a village with her grandparents in Michoacán, Mexico, where she regularly saw neighbors and acquaintances returning from time spent working in the United States. They wore stylish clothes; some drove cars. She and others were mesmerized. No one, however, spoke about the work up north, and what it took to earn and save to buy such impressive goods.

Manuel Andrade was one of the men who returned to Michoacán. He eventually asked Consuelo to marry him and return to Tulare County, California, where he has picked oranges since 1979. Like countless immigrants before her, she expected if not fortune then certainly a better, more prosperous life in California than the poverty she knew in Mexico.

The Andrades’ home is like all the others here on Road 216 in Tonyville: crumbling paint, shaky floors and stairs, gravel and weeds, dead tree branches, laundry lines and plastic sheeting over windows to keep out drafts. But the rent is affordable at $400 per month. Ordinarily, she and Manuel would each earn $80 per day at minimum wage, but with increasing vision problems and visits to the doctor for that, he only works half-days.

Like many families in the Central Valley, the Andrades face life with contaminated drinking water. They rely on bottled water for household use. They also volunteer in neighboring Lindsay with Community Water Center, an RCAC partner that advocates for actions that target the root cause of drinking water contamination in California’s rural Central Valley.

Neither Manuel nor Consuelo have heard of John Steinbeck’s “Grapes of Wrath,” so they wouldn’t know that the author set much of his tale right here in Tulare County. Next year, it will be 80 years since the book was published. Manuel has been here 40 of those 80 years; the work remains just as hard, his expenses are ever increasing, and his income can barely keep pace.

And yet while Tulare County residents live in persistent poverty, the county fails to meet the federal standard for precisely that.

In the American West, 21 non-metro counties are officially designated as persistent poverty (PP) counties. However, not a single rural California county qualifies.

The government uses census data to define counties as officially “Persistently Poor” if 20 percent or more of their populations were living in poverty during the last 30 years, as measured by the 1980, 1990 and 2000 decennial censuses and 2007-2011 American Community Survey. Different federal agencies use different metrics but most federal programs have targets for persistent poverty areas. The definition affects at least 15 different spending programs within the Departments of Agriculture (USDA), Commerce, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development (HUD), Transportation, Environmental Protection Agency and The Treasury.

The USDA, for example, has a mandate for 20 percent of its lending to go to persistent poverty areas. In addition, the new tax law creates “Opportunity Zones,” but this is based on census tracts, not counties. States can designate 25 percent of their “high need” census tracts as opportunity zones, which translates into significant tax benefits to encourage investment there.

Today, there are 353 persistently poor counties in the United States, of which 301 are rural, compared with 52 that are urban. Eighty-four percent of the nation’s persistent poverty counties are in the South. Much of Appalachia qualifies. In the American West, 21 non-metro counties are officially designated as persistent poverty (PP) counties.

However, not a single rural California county qualifies. The reason, say experts, is that rural poverty in the American West is masked by size and by population growth. Large counties with higher income urban populations conceal rural areas where persistent poverty exists—like in Tulare County.

“Being in a persistent poverty area means that the federal government is supposed to give more attention to the needs in these areas,” explains Stanley Keasling, RCAC’s chief executive officer. “However, in the West, persistent poverty is masked by two things: large counties and population growth. Large counties hide the fact that there are substantial areas where persistent poverty exists.”

Another example is Fresno. It is an urban California county based on population. But the county also has sizeable rural census tracts west of the city of Fresno that are persistently poor. And yet, much-needed federal funding for infrastructure and community development projects is based on county data, not census tract data.

“Persistent poverty has always been measured by county and because of that, the federal government has been reluctant to consider other options,” says Janice Waddell, who was USDA Rural Development California state director between 2015 and 2017 and prior to that worked for 35 years within the agency. “That really puts California at a disadvantage when our rural poverty is very considerable. It excludes so many populations and doesn’t reflect what’s happening on the ground. A persistent poverty county can access more funds, or get first shot at funding when there are initiatives that come out to target high poverty areas. California is disadvantaged because it often cannot compete for those funds.”

Moreover, when the cost of living in California is measured against median household incomes, the state is the poorest in the nation, despite its stellar job and economic growth. More than 20 percent of its residents—eight million people—are struggling to pay bills, according to the U.S. Census’ supplemental poverty measure, which takes into consideration food, housing, taxes and medical costs. Last year, these striking figures prompted California State Assembly Republican Leader Chad Mayes, who represents San Bernardino and Riverside counties, to declare poverty California’s most urgent priority.

The official term “persistent poverty” is unfamiliar to Dave Herb, although he’s been neck deep in the issue for years—ever since he arrived in Kings County, California, as a VISTA volunteer in 1969. Back then, he says, “I thought to myself, ‘God must not love this place.’” A Pennsylvania coal country native who says he came to California “to save the poor,” and like other VISTA volunteers, “to teach people how to be squeaky wheels,” Herb eventually settled in Fresno where he raised a family and worked for decades in county politics. He has an unmistakable affection for his adopted home, in particular when he notes proudly that the writer William Saroyan lived his entire 72 years here and as an older gentleman, could be seen riding his bike around town.

He has watched prisons—a dozen today—proliferate throughout the Central Valley and provide jobs, but also mutate the natural fabric of cherished farming communities and increase suburban sprawl. He has watched neighborhoods diversify and gentrify and develop willy-nilly.

“The Central Valley is a classic case of establishing scattered communities without adequate services,” says Herb, as he drives through Calwa, a low-income Fresno neighborhood. “Over the years, counties here have allowed scattered developments often without adequate levels of urban fire protection, police or infrastructure.”

The western half of Fresno County is very poor and has been so for decades; the farmworkers that live there are a critical component of California’s economic backbone. They feed the state and the nation. But further east and including the city of Fresno, it’s somewhat more prosperous. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Fresno County’s poverty rate is 25.3 percent. Twenty percent is considered a high poverty area.

Some New Mexico counties qualify for persistent poverty status

On a sunny yet freezing Saturday afternoon in Rio Lucio, New Mexico, more than a dozen area residents sat in a trailer that serves as the Rio Lucio Community Center. Sitting on metal folding chairs around tables forming a crescent moon, some participants sipped from water bottles, others from Styrofoam cups filled with ginger ale.

The meeting agenda was focused on but one item: water.

Residents like these share a common concern: how to deliver clean water to residents and businesses and how to treat wastewater. If they are eligible, grants could help pay for infrastructure costs and certified water operators.

“Even though this is a relatively small area, each small community has their own water system which is managed by volunteer community members, who are aging and dying,” explains Laura Dubin, RCAC rural development specialist, who moderated the Rio Lucio meeting. “The meeting was intended to help them identify ways to work together to reduce their expenses.”

During the past year, residents in this mountainous region have had to contend with numerous challenges. One water system had three major water leaks during the prior month. One, at an elementary school, drained 250,000 gallons of water over 12 hours; no one could find the valve to stanch the flood. Some communities around here don’t have water operators; there’s no economy of scale, infrastructure is expensive, and local leaders are sympathetic to keeping rates low, everyone agreed, namely because this is a low-income county.

Here in Taos County, the median household income is $31,112 and the poverty rate reported in July 2017, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, was 22.4 percent. But consider that the city of Taos, with its world-renowned art galleries and nearby ski resorts, is a haven for the wealthy. Julia Roberts has a seasonal home there. Robert Redford calls Taos home. The county’s historical poverty, however, has earned it persistent poverty status, which allows it to compete for rural development funding. Such funding helps towns like Peñasco, Rodarte and Rio Lucio that continue to struggle over how to pay for clean water. In an odd twist, it’s also where Redford set his 1988 “Milagro Beanfield War,” chronicling a poor northern New Mexico town that loses its water to political and business interests.

Nearly 500 miles south of Rio Lucio, the high desert gradually flattens, allowing farmers in Dona Ana County to grow the area’s signature chile peppers. The Hatch Chile Festival on Labor Day weekend attracts more than 30,000 visitors from around the world to the small town where fewer than 2,000 residents live. But otherwise, this is a lonely, searing landscape.

It’s all Lisa Neal has known, growing up here on her parents’ onion farm. She has a natural affection and enthusiasm for Hatch, serving as its library director as well as the Hatch Valley Economic Coordinator. In both capacities, she points to improvements in her community during the years. One is an attractive newly built apartment complex for agriculture workers funded in part through HUD, namely because Dona Ana county, where Hatch is located, is a persistent poverty county.

There is also an arroyo that flooded over levees in 2006 and which last year, due again to Dona Ana County’s persistent poverty status, qualified for more than $500,000 in USDA funding to renovate its water system.

“We’re eligible for certain library programs, too,” Neal said. She receives increased state funding for bilingual books and to teach citizenship, GED and literacy classes. Funding for this is partly through the federal Library Services & Technology Act, which supports libraries in underserved rural communities and children from families with incomes below the poverty line.

One of those children was Ana Balcazar, whose family arrived in Hatch Valley nearly 30 years ago. Her father was 13 when he came; now 40, he and his wife are raising five children. A number of their family members work for Lisa’s sister whose husband has a farming business. As soon as Ana was old enough – age 12 – she too was in the fields. She is now 18.

“We picked onions and I learned how to top off their stems,” she says. “It was hard work. I knew it then even though I had nothing to compare it to. During the summer, we’d be up at 4 a.m., start work at 5:00 a.m. and finish sometime in the afternoon. My grandfather is in his 70s and he’s still working in the fields.”

In 2016, Balcazar applied for, and got, a part-time after-school job at the library. She learned how to shelve books, helped visitors use the computers and translated for those who couldn’t speak English. It opened up a world for her she says, adding that it gave her more time to read and gave her confidence to apply this year to the University of New Mexico.

“Taos and Dona Ana Counties are persistent poverty counties, and Fresno County isn’t,” notes Keasling. “With Fresno County, the size and growth there mask its poverty, in spite of the fact that the poverty rate is higher in Fresno than it is in Taos and Dona Ana.”

Persistent poverty status eludes California’s rural counties

Stories of the working poor, of course, are not new. This country was built on the backs of immigrants arriving here, just like Ana’s parents, many disoriented just like Consuelo Andrade, but forging ahead so that their children can have better lives. In California’s Central Valley, Steinbeck and Saroyan celebrated the field hands, their dreams and modest ambitions.

Their prose also comes to life along Avenue 66 between La Quinta and Thermal in California’s Riverside County. A corridor of date palms line the road, creating a somewhat Middle Eastern regal ambience and driving it, you may expect to end up at a desert palace. Indeed, traveling westward, that wouldn’t be far off the mark: La Quinta’s lush world-class golf courses and manicured yards and homes behind automated gates are an oasis set against the striking Santa Rosa and San Jacinto Mountains.

But drive just a few miles eastward and you will pass lettuce fields and orange orchards, and cadres of laborers among each, fully covered to shield themselves from sun and farm chemicals. Eventually you will reach the decrepit mobile homes scattered along unpaved roads and see dilapidated trailers behind metal fences, shrouded by drying laundry and abandoned cars, a world away from Palm Springs and La Quinta. And not unlike Taos County, where the wealth of Taos proper overshadows the poverty of Peñasco and Rodarte.

Samuel Castro, owner and manager of mobile home park in Thermal CA.
Samuel Castro, owner and manager of mobile home park in Thermal, California.

Samuel Castro has lived in Thermal for nearly four decades. It was poor when he arrived from his native Michoacán and it’s without question still poor. He speaks no English – too busy to learn, he explains, and too busy working in the fields. But he’s moved up a bit in this world: for the past 15 years, he’s owned and managed the 12 mobile homes at the Mezquit Mobile Home Park in Thermal.

Walking among the homes, he describes trying to convince residents to get rid of old cars that no longer run and are left blocking fire routes. There are no sewer lines to his park; he must manage a septic system. He details the county fees and permits that have left him drowning in debt, and problems with the former owner who refused to vacate the property.

He says he is grateful for the support of the nonprofit Pueblo Unido Community Development Corporation, which partners with RCAC. Together, the agencies have worked to bring water and wastewater infrastructure to the Eastern Coachella Valley. The focus here, too, has been on better farm worker housing and economic development. But the problems are generational and challenging.

At one point, Riverside County offered a program to mobile home owners like Castro to trade in older homes for newer ones and have the tenants pay the insurance and fees for their new dwellings. This helped him. But it was short-lived; the program no longer exists. If Riverside was a persistent poverty county, it would have priority status when competing for funding that could alleviate its housing and water woes.

“It’s hard for me to cover all costs,” Castro says through a translator. “I’ve tried to raise the rent but then the tenants complain to the county and there’s a backlash.” For now, Castro does the best he can, walking the premises daily to inspect the properties and make sure all is up to code. He pleads with tenants to remove unused cars and do their part to keep the area presentable.

The two words persistent poverty paint an image of California’s decades-long rural poverty, even if it doesn’t meet the criteria for recognition by the federal government. But as Dave Herb sees it, the state’s working poor have simply been too busy working to be concerned with the bureaucratic definitions of their lives. Consuelo Andrade, for example, looks ahead to having her first child later this year.