Index shows more jobs but lagging wages in north Valley

The first North San Joaquin Valley Index, released Tuesday, shows that the region’s jobless rate has finally recovered from the crash of 2008.

The downside: The typical household still makes a lot less money than in prerecession times in Stanislaus, Merced and San Joaquin counties.

The 72-page index, compiled by the University of the Pacific and intended to be put out annually, has detailed statistics on income, health, housing, education and other topics. Most striking are the swings in the unemployment rate, which dropped during the homebuilding boom of the early 2000s, then shot as high as 17 percent for the three counties as that industry collapsed and a financial crisis hit the nation.

It took until early 2015 for the rate to return to the 10 percent or so it was before the recession, and much of that came in a burst of hiring over the past year.

“Recent job growth trends are extremely positive,” said Jeffrey Michael, director of the Center for Business & Policy Research at UOP’s Eberhardt School of Business, at a morning gathering in downtown Stockton.

Not so positive, he said, are the reduced spending power and other effects of a downturn that hit the region especially hard. Median household income in Stanislaus County dropped from about $57,000 in 2008 to $51,000 last year. Merced went from about $48,000 to $44,000.

“Not only did (the downturn) start sooner here, it ended later,” Michael said. “It was really long for this particular community.”

The index, created with support from JP Morgan Chase & Co., shows the good and not so good in other aspects of north Valley life. The vast majority of residents now have health insurance, thanks to the federal Affordable Care Act, but the percentage with college degrees lags behind the state overall. The housing bust meant foreclosure for many homeowners, but homes now are much more affordable.

The report shows that agriculture generally thrived during the real estate troubles, except for periods of low milk prices for dairy farmers. Gross farm income reached about $10.2 billion in 2013; the results from 2014 are incomplete.

Rising costs for labor, fuel, water and other needs have reduced farm profits in recent years, but Michael said that can be seen as another kind of gain.

“As production expenses increased with the farmers generally, they’re paying someone in the region for something,” he said.

Average wages for farmworkers rose to about $13.50 an hour last year, up from $11 in 2011 but still far less than average for all workers.

Low pay also is the norm for home health care providers, who grew in number by 36 percent from 2009 to 2014, the highest rate for any occupation. Next at 35 percent were computer-related jobs, which pay much better.

The report said about 65,000 residents are commuting to jobs in the Bay Area, where housing costs have gone even higher thanks to a sizzling economy. That has leaders here thinking of ways to attract Silicon Valley employers.

Merced County has turned the former Castle Air Force Base into a hub for aviation-based businesses and has improved a Highway 99 interchange. It also has started planning for a major business park on about 1,500 acres near Los Banos.

“We are most certainly trying to diversify … but agriculture will continue to be our bread and butter,” said Mark Hendrickson, the county’s director of community and economic development, during a panel discussion after the index’s release.

Leaders talked of increasing the capacity of the region’s airports, its two major freight railroads and the Port of Stockton. And they said reviving downtowns, especially with housing, could attract business.

Josh Bridegroom, downtown planning manager for Modesto, described tax breaks and other incentives for housing, retail and other development. He said the city’s outlying shopping centers take in plenty of money, and downtown can do the same if people feel safe and comfortable there.

David Garcia, who has helped develop such projects in downtown Stockton, said it aims “to become that thriving, walkable urban core that everyone talks about and everyone wants.”

John Holland: 209-578-2385

By the numbers

$51,000: Approximate household income in Stanislaus County last year, down from about $57,000 in 2008

$44,000: Income in Merced County, down from $48,000

$52,000: Income in San Joaquin County, down from $62,000

88: Percentage of the three counties’ residents with health coverage in 2014, up from 81 percent in 2013

17: Percentage of residents with a college degree, compared with 31 percent statewide

60: Percentage of homeowners in 2011 who owed more on their mortgages than their homes were worth

18: Percentage in 2015

6: Percentage of the region’s industrial property that is vacant, a healthy rate

23: Percentage drop in violent crime from 2005 to 2013

$10.2 billion: Gross farm income in 2013