Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Mother Jones' Dustbowl Article

The brief bio of Javier Vaca in this Mother Jones article about the drought is a pretty good summary of the Valley's poverty problem.
When I meet Javier Vaca.. he's been walking for three days. The skinny 18-year-old is being carried along in a procession of 7,000 farmworkers and farmers as it crosses California's Central Valley... He's been told only one thing that matters: Marching 50 miles might earn him a job.
When the housing boom imploded last year, he lost a $14-an-hour construction job, a job that had allowed this son of farmworkers to drop out of high school, buy a car, and rent an apartment for his young wife and baby in Fresno. It took him a month to find more work, this time picking peaches at less than half his previous wage. Then the worst drought in more than a decade hit, a court order to protect an endangered fish cut off water to the valley's farmers... Vaca now works one day a week while his family survives on welfare and food stamps.
Vaca's story is all too common in the Valley. There are many problems for the local economy illustrated by Vaca's story and I will list them in my view of their order of importance.

1. High school dropout, teen age parent.
2. Construction industry has collapsed.
3. Farm jobs pay miserably (1/2 the rate of construction labor) are physically demanding, and provide only seasonal work and a life of poverty even when water is plentiful.
4. Water shortages (drought and environmental causes) have reduced the number of farm jobs in the Valley by 2-3% this year (less than the overall decline in non-farm employment in CA and the U.S. this year).

This article hits all the key points, but in my view, still leaves the misleading impression that more water is the solution.

Later in the article, it also visits a new build neighborhood in Mendota where half the houses are foreclosed, vacant, and being vandalized and stripped of fixtures. Then it visits an alley in the same town where people are illegally living in garages, a situation that isn't new at all in this area that was the poorest in the U.S. before the drought, and in even worse shape now.

I wish people would see the human toll of the collapse of the construction industry in the same way as the "dust bowls" human toll. It has caused far far more unemployment, hunger and lost wages than this drought, yet many view it as something that has just hurt property flippers and greedy real estate developers. Articles like this make it sound like construction has merely slipped back to a normal level after an unsustanable frothy period. In fact, the industry that has completely dried up in an unprecendented, historic collapse. And unlike places like Florida, there isn't much of a housing glut here, just a foreclosure crisis. Decent, affordable housing is still quite hard to find, and we could use more of it (especially multi-family homes).

Home building is down 90% in the Valley and has eliminated about 50,000 jobs, and water shortages have cut agriculture production about 3% in value and cost less than 10,000 jobs.

So, yes water is a problem and creating hardships, but there are lots of human tragedies here.

What the Valley needs most in the short-run (and what would benefit Javier Vaca the most) is a real solution to the foreclosure crisis and construction crisis. If construction could even return to 25% of its previous level, it would generate far more jobs and income than turning on the pumps.

What the Valley needs most in the long-run is improved education and workforce skills to match the needs of a 21st century economy. Another thing the Valley needs to support a 21st century economy is better environmental quality, that means less air pollution and rivers that actually contain water and fish. And it needs a healthy agriculture sector, but not necessarily a bigger agriculture sector.

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