Answers to the problem of poverty are fairly simple: better jobs, a more educated work force and resources to help the needy. Achieving those solutions, obviously, is far more complicated.
As of 2009, the most recent year for which figures are available, nearly one in five of Stanislaus County's half-million residents lived under the poverty level $22,756 for a family of four up 6 percent from 20 years ago.
Modesto Pastor Chuck Cutsinger believes that education is the key. By that he means more than just making sure kids stay in school and graduate, or that adults have the training to make them employable.
He thinks more in terms of teaching people life skills such as how to budget their money, take better care of their health by learning to eat well and exercise, and how to be a better spouse, parent and neighbor.
Cutsinger is a pastor at Calvary Temple and the director of the church's Nineveh Outreach, whose services include providing food, clothing and medical care to the needy.
He said helping people help themselves requires building relationships with them. That takes time and trust. There are no shortcuts.
Brian Aird, business coordinator for The Salvation Army's Modesto Citadel Corps, agrees that solving poverty requires a grass-roots effort, working intensely with one family or person at a time. It also involves helping people who may have given in to despair and hopelessness to find new inspiration and a dream for a better life.
"People don't always know the possibilities for their own lives and their children," Aird said.
None of this is easy.
"Does this work? Yes, but it's few and far between," said Maj. Debi Shrum with The Salvation Army in Turlock. "You can't think everyone you are going to talk to and work with is going to be a success. But if all of us put ourselves out there for other people, it would be a better world."
It's a problem we all have a stake in solving.
Poverty affects the entire region through such factors as higher health care costs as medical providers recoup the cost of treating the poor and uninsured who crowd into emergency rooms. And communities with high poverty rates find it harder to improve their economies by attracting businesses that employ highly skilled, highly paid workers.
Ongoing efforts to help
As California's economy continues to sputter, public and private efforts to alleviate poverty continue. And new, creative ideas are taking shape.
Harold Peterson, who served on a committee established to look at poverty in Stanislaus County 20 years ago, points to efforts such as the Stanislaus Partners in Education, which helps schools prepare students for the world of work after graduation, and vocational programs that came out of that effort.
Last year, Stanislaus County agencies launched the Area Manufacturing/Maintenance Joint Apprenticeship Program to provide on-the-job experience at area companies and classroom education at Modesto Junior College.
In Patterson, on the county's West Side, the Grainger distribution center donated $25,000 to fund Patterson High School's Logistics Education Program, a partnership with the Stanislaus County Economic and Workforce Alliance, aimed at training students to work in distribution and international trade.
According to the Alliance's Keith Griffith, 25 high school seniors finished the program in its first year. Many are going on to college, but he said at least a half-dozen landed job interviews.
And the jobs are coming in, slowly. Patterson has found success luring four distribution centers, most recently one operated by Amazon.com, which is slated to open in less than a year. These four centers will employ nearly 2,000 people.
Blue Diamond is on target to open a 200,000-square-foot manufacturing plant in May in Turlock, bringing more jobs, though company officials have not said how many.
These successes come as the county's unemployment rate was a dismal 15.7 percent in July, placing Stanislaus 53rd among California's 58 counties. The state unemployment rate was 10.7 percent.
Griffith said the Alliance is reaching out to private partners in the hopes of putting a dent in those figures by upgrading the area's work force, focusing on working-age adults who don't have high school diplomas.
"We're trying to create a countywide GED program to complement the existing adult school programs," he said. Recent cuts from the state have led to reduced resources for many adult education programs.
Though there are more than 50,000 people between the ages of 16 and 64 in Stanislaus County who don't have a diploma or general education certificate, "Nobody's walking around carrying a sign that says, 'I don't have a high school diploma or GED,' " Griffith said. "But 27.8 percent of our work force does not qualify for any of the jobs over in Patterson today."
While the effort is just getting under way, Griffith is hopeful it will gain traction and show some real results. In the process, the community as a whole will improve. He pointed out that people who choose facility sites for large companies look carefully at demographics, including educational attainment rates, when making their decisions.
"Are they going to move here? Probably not," Griffith said. "Let's change that statistic and elevate the bottom of our work force."
Empowering the work force
Cultural anthropologist Robin DeLugan believes part of the answer could lie in empowering people through civic engagement.
DeLugan, an assistant professor at the University of California at Merced, is engaged in several projects aimed at encouraging people to take a more active role in government and politics.
For instance, she's looking into setting up internships at the Merced County Registrar of Voters to conduct outreach. The outcome, she hopes, is a win for everyone: The cash-strapped county gets help it desperately needs, students gain useful experience, and residents who typically are disconnected become more involved in the processes and policies that govern them. At the same time, people could learn about and take advantage of services that would help them improve their lives.
"When you are poor, you can feel very stigmatized," she said. "You don't count and you don't belong. How do we somehow change that, so people feel that their voice is essential for making things happen?"
Bee staff writer Patty Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (209) 578-2343.
Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2316.