Thursday, August 23, 2007

Poverty still rooted in the Valley

from The Fresno Bee

Job growth during the past two decades fails to reduce the rate; education, job skills are needed.
By Brad Branan / The Fresno Bee

Despite job growth over the last 16 years, the San Joaquin Valley has seen little change in a poverty rate that is the highest in California, a new report says.


Most of the Valley's new jobs are low-paying, said Jean Ross, executive director of the California Budget Project and co-author of "The State of Working California, 1979-2006."

The report uses poverty estimates for 2005 from the U.S. Census Bureau. That year, a single parent with two children was living below the poverty line with an income of $15,375 or less.

About one out of five Valley residents was living in poverty in 2005.

Tulare County had the state's highest poverty rate at 23%, with Fresno and Kings counties not far behind at 21% and Madera County at 17%, according to the California Budget Project.

The organization is using the report to spur public debate on economic issues such as the minimum wage, Ross said. The Sacramento nonprofit focuses on issues of importance to low- and middle-income Californians.

The state should tie the minimum wage to inflation rates, she said. Small increases keep workers from losing purchasing power.

Education improvements also are needed to raise wages in the Valley, she said.

"In the short term, people follow jobs," Ross said. "In the long term, jobs follow people.

"People in the Valley have lower educational levels. You're going to have a harder time attracting businesses to the area."

To lower poverty rates, Valley officials are focusing more on improving the skills of workers than attracting higher-wage jobs to area, said Ashley Swearengin, director of the Office of Community and Economic Development at Fresno State.

Competition is fierce for a relatively small number of businesses wanting to relocate, she said.

But Valley employers have good-paying jobs that are going unfilled, she said. She pointed to a recent study by the Fresno County Workforce Investment Board.

A survey of employers found that up to 27,000 jobs could go unfilled in the next three years because potential employees lack the needed skills, according to the board's report.

In response, state community colleges and Valley public schools are stepping up their vocational training programs, Swearengin said. The programs will provide skills that employers identified as lacking in the work force survey.

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