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Latinos in California’s Central Valley Lag Behind

Latinos in California’s Central Valley Lag Behind

Photo: New America Media

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A Latino baby born in rural and urban areas of California’s San Joaquín Valley can expect to live 81.2 years—about a year longer than the average Californian, but fewer years than Latinos in other regions of the state.


That child has a minimal chance of achieving an education here. Just 50.4 percent of Latinos in the Valley earn at least a high school degree, and just 6.1 percent earn at least a bachelor’s degree.


Once grown up, his or her low level of educational achievement could translate into abysmal wages.


The median earnings for a Latino worker in the Valley are just $18,000 a year. If female, she could make just $17,373—the median earnings for a Latina worker in the Valley, and the lowest sum for any gender or race in the state.


Welcome to the Valley, otherwise known as ‘The Forsaken Five Percent’ of California—as a report has recently dubbed the region.

In ‘A Portrait of California,’ published in May by the American Human Development Project, the study authors analyzed three factors—life expectancy, access to education, and median earnings—to determine the American Human Development Index, or well-being score, of residents in 233 neighborhoods and counties across the Golden State.

Overall, their findings paint an unflattering picture of the Valley and its Latino residents, who today are the majority in Tulare, Fresno, Kings, Madera, and Merced counties.

They found gross disparities in life expectancy, degree attainment, and earnings between the Valley and other parts of the state, and between Latinos and other ethnic groups. They also found disparities between counties and neighborhoods within the Valley—and a few surprises.

Kristen Lewis, co-director of the American Human Development Project, said the report is not intended to be a “message of doom and gloom” for the region. Rather, it is meant to offer a snapshot of the current well-being of residents and regions, and help shape priorities for change.

“I think that if you don’t know where you are, it is hard to know where you are going to go,” she said after presenting the study at a forum last Tuesday afternoon. “It is hard to know if you are succeeding if you don’t have a good benchmark.”


And that was exactly the response of local advocates—many of whom were already familiar with the region’s deep-rooted inequities.


During the forum, participants discussed how they would utilize this new data—as well as federal and private initiatives that have funneled significant funds and resources into the region—to help pull the Valley out of poverty.


“I am no longer surprised; I’m very familiar with the data and it doesn’t change much—it is just amazing also that it doesn’t change,” said Rey Leon, executive director of the Latino Environmental Advancement & Policy Project, which organized the forum.


The important question to ask, he said, is “what are we going to do together to really maximize the resources that are on the ground now?”


The report authors divided the state into five Californias, highlighting the entrenched health, education and income disparities here.


They found that residents of the Santa Clara County cities of Los Altos, Mountain View and Palo Alto had the highest levels of well-being in the state, earning the area the nickname, ‘Silicon Valley Shangri-La.’


Residents there can expect to live nine years longer, are nine times more likely to have a bachelor’s degree, and earn an average of $45,000 more than residents of Watts, in Los Ángeles County, and some urban and rural areas of the Valley—including Fresno and west Kern County. These areas earned the lowest well-being scores in the state, and thus the unenviable nickname, ‘The Forsaken Five Percent.’


That the agricultural Valley earned a dismal well-being score is, sadly, no longer a surprise. In fact, in its 2008 ‘Measure of America’ report, the same organization found the 20th Congressional District—which includes parts of Fresno, Kings and Kern counties—had the lowest level of well-being of any district in the country.


“I don’t think any of it is surprising,” said Genvoveva Islas-Hooker, regional program coordinator for the Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program.


“But it is just nice to have it refreshed and brought back into the consciousness of people of why it is so important to continue this type of work that is really aimed at resolving these disparities.”


What may be eye-opening, though, is that significant disparities in health, educational achievement, and income exist, even within the San Joaquín Valley.


“It is not that there are no resources at all, and that everyone in the San Joaquín Valley is struggling,” said Lewis, of the American Human Development Project. “There are people who have quite high levels of well-being here—and others who don’t, and haven’t for a very, very long time.


“That the disparities are so large and so entrenched is surprising.”


For example, residents of downtown Sacramento and southern San Joaquín County generally have longer life expectancies, higher levels of education, and higher earnings than the typical American. These areas, along with 38 percent of state residents, earned well-being scores that ranked them in the category, ‘Main Street América.’


Residents of Eastern Tulare County, Stockton, and Bakersfield—who the report characterized as working hard, but hardly gaining a foothold on security—received lower well-being scores, and were classified, along with another 38 percent of state residents, as ‘Struggling California.’


Interesting disparities also exist among foreign-born and native-born Latinos in the state.


For example, while 57.5 percent of foreign-born Latinos in the state have less than a high school degree, they have a long life expectancy.


Foreign-born Latinos can expect to live 84.2 years—less than native-born Asian Americans, who, at 87.4 years, have the longest life expectancy of any racial or ethnic group, but longer than native-born Latinos, whites, and African Americans.


Foreign-born Latinos’ long life-expectancy—known as the ‘Latino health paradox’—could be chalked up to fewer risk behaviors—like smoking, a poor diet, physical inactivity, and excessive drinking—or more protective social factors, like social supports and family cohesion, Lewis said.


The report offers general suggestions for improvement—like achieving better health by facilitating healthy behaviors, making educational equity a reality, and closing the gender earnings gap.


In the Valley, advocates are optimistic that such goals can be achieved through a handful of initiatives that have already directed significant resources and investments to the region, including Building Healthy Communities, the California Endowment’s 10-year project in 14 communities, including Fresno, Merced, and Sacramento; and Strong Communities, Strong Cities, a federal, interagency initiative in six cities across the nation, including Fresno.


These federal and private investments have the potential to spur social improvements in the region, said Albert Maldonado, program manager of the Building Healthy Communities initiative in the Fresno area.


“For a very long time, Fresno has been considered this resource-depleted area, and this area that’s often overlooked,” Maldonado said. “Right now, there are lot of eyes on the Central Valley, and lots of interest in the Central Valley. Given that, and those different projects all coming together, I think it is a really good time for the Valley.”


But truly improving the region’s deep-seated inequities—like the low level of educational achievement and low earnings—will require collaboration between those various initiatives, he said.

“How do we intentionally create opportunity for integration between the different initiatives and large-scale projects that are all taking place at the same time, so that we are maximizing this opportunity?” he said.


The report, he said, “is a reminder of the need to be steadfast in our commitment to improve our community, and really not put a BandAid on out situation anymore—but dig deeper.”