MODESTO -- It's no secret the Northern San Joaquin Valley is poorer than many other areas in the state and country. Lower education levels, a lack of sustainable growth and an agriculture-based economy that produces food for the world but not many well-paying jobs are all part of the mix.
But over the past several years, the disparity has widened. Some examples:
The lines are longer for the free lunches served by United Samaritans Foundation trucks at more than three dozen parks and other sites in Turlock, Ceres, Modesto and six other Stanislaus County communities. The trucks served nearly 384,000 lunches last year.
Thousands of people without insurance turn to emergency rooms for medical care, straining the system and extending waits for patients with immediate emergencies.
In the fall, more than 1,200 people applied for 65 jobs at the new Hobby Lobby store in Modesto.
Last year, 54.4 percent of Stanislaus County schoolchildren qualified for free lunches, comparedwith 48.6 percent statewide.
In 1989, 13.7 percent of Stanislaus County residents lived in poverty, compared with 12.7 percent statewide. By 2009, those numbers had grown to 19.7 percent and 14.2 percent, respectively.
That means that in 2009, about 100,000 of the county's half-million residents were living in poverty, which the federal government has defined as an annual income of $10,830 for a single person and $14,570 for a couple.
Tens of thousands of others with slightly higher incomes are in economic distress. They contend with wrenching choices trying to stretch their money for rent, food, transportation, clothing, medicine while hoping a financial emergency doesn't arise.
"There's a big percentage of people who, culturally or whatever the case may be they're always going to be needy," said Ken Narita, a retired school principal who is president of Community Sharing Christian Center, an Oakdale nonprofit that operates a food pantry and clothing closet. "But there's a new group of folks who have lost their jobs and now they're in need of assistance."
Many of those people are there because of their actions or inactions. Drug addiction, criminal history and poor handling of money are challenges many face.
"I think people can make stupid decisions, bad decisions, take shortcuts," said Maj. Debi Shrum with The Salvation Army in Turlock. "But I don't think anyone wants to be homeless and without food and shelter."
The poor sometimes turn to payday lenders and retailers that sell goods on an installment plan. They pay dearly for availing themselves of these businesses. For instance, a person can buy a laptop computer by putting $5 down and paying $65 a month for 10 months. But that same item ultimately costs about half as much at big-box retailers.
People who aren't struggling often don't have much sympathy for those who are, particularly in an area with a high concentration of immigrants.
"I do believe that there is a misconception of immigrants being lazy and coming to America to feed off our welfare system," said JoLynn DiGrazia, who runs the nonprofit Westside Ministries in Turlock. "This is patently untrue. Most of the families I have worked with struggle with reaching out for help."
Shrum said a tendency to compare ourselves with others leads us to judge them.
"Mankind tends to say, 'I'm better because I'm not as bad as so and so.' That's where we get the concept of the deserving and undeserving poor," she said. "It's that concept of 'Who can throw the first stone?' None of us can. We really don't know where our lives are going to take us."
Not a new problem
Two decades ago, Stanislaus County supervisors appointed a committee to look into the problem of poverty after The Bee published a special report, "Valley of the Poor," in December 1991. Committee members from public and private agencies created a list of recommendations that still resonate today. They included:
Job retention should be government's highest priority.
Programs that promote literacy and job training should be developed.
More commercial and industrial land should be made available to encourage large employers to locate here.
One area the committee emphasized no longer seems to be as much of a problem: a breakdown in communication and collaboration among government agencies. With fewer resources, government has had to pull back sharply in the services it offers, and public and private agencies work together today more than ever. For instance, The Salvation Army and the Modesto Gospel Mission have started talking about how they can collaborate to help the poor.
Harold Peterson served on that long-ago committee. He said that in many ways, the gap between those who are succeeding and those who aren't is larger today than it was years ago.
Peterson, then employed as vice president at giant ag cooperative Tri Valley Growers, is now the executive director of Community Hospice. He noted that even entry-level jobs today require computer skills that wouldn't have been necessary 20 years ago.
"It's a different world," he said.
Jobs, skills don't coincide
Attracting higher-level jobs requires increased development of skills, which leads to a chicken-and-egg problem of growing one to improve the other.
"You hear from a lot of employers that you can't get people even past the drug tests," said Kelvin Jasek-Rysdahl, an economics professor at California State University, Stanislaus, and co-director of its Center for Public Policy Studies. "If you have little education, it's hard to get an above-ground job, so you look for income in the underground economy. If you do get an education, you know there are not as many jobs here, so you might have better opportunities elsewhere."
Though the economy is depressed in many areas, the Northern San Joaquin Valley is at a marked disadvantage.
"As a region, one of the places that we really lag behind is education rates," Jasek-Rysdahl said. With lower graduation rates and test scores, he likened the area's ability to compete with with other areas to a race against Olympics swimming sensation Michael Phelps. "We're giving him a 10-yard lead. Think how bad we're going to get beat."
Stanislaus County's dropout rate among public school students in 2011 came in at 17.1 percent. Though it was an improvement from previous years, it's worse than the statewide rate of 14.4 percent. A lack of education leads to a work force that is less skilled than those elsewhere.
California's strict building and operating standards combine with a less-skilled work force to make companies less likely to locate here. Some area companies such as dairy giant Hilmar Cheese have chosen to expand elsewhere. The firm opened a processing facility in Dalhart, Texas, five years ago.
There's a good chance the problem is about to get much worse.
"It's a knowledge economy, an information economy," said Jasek-Rysdahl. With even entry-level jobs requiring more technical skills, "we've got to be able to be creative
or we risk falling further behind."
It's everone's problem
Jasek-Rysdahl's comments reinforce the notion that all of us have a stake in solving the problem of poverty. But even if people don't want to deal with the poor on humanitarian grounds, there are practical reasons to care.
"Businesses tend not to want to locate in communities with chronic poverty, where there is not an investment in human capital," said Susan Smith with the Insight Center for Community Development in Oakland.
Smith said that whether they want to acknowledge it or not, communities end up paying the price of chronic poverty. The cost of the poor using emergency rooms because they don't have health insurance or accessing social services are borne by all of us, she said.
She added that it's less costly and more humane for communities to make upfront investments in poverty prevention. But it's a complicated problem to tackle.
"It's such a personal issue," said Jasek-Rysdahl. "So many people have their beliefs as to why people are poor. The conversation about this is so emotional for people."
Concerns over kids' futures
Peterson and Narita, both in their 60s, said they feel far more uncertain about the futures of their children and grandchildren than when they started in the work force.
"It doesn't feel better (now)," Peterson said. "But I don't know if that's a Modesto thing as much as a country thing."
He said the era of lifelong employment is over, and the opportunities he had aren't as readily available.
Narita, who was a school principal in west Modesto for 30 years, said parents are no longer confident that their children will have better lives than they did.
Government can't provide the answer on its own.
"Money is not the solution," Narita said. Changes to the culture and the economic system must be made to ensure long-term success. "If you don't have those in place, then that (federal) stimulus is just like insulin," he said a quick fix.
"I've seen it so long and I don't know what the solution is. How do you get people back to thinking work is important? How does it happen so people feel like they're progressing?"
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2343.