Poverty in Fresno and how the Mayor is missing the point

Fresno City Hall (Photo: Eduardo Stanley)
Fresno City Hall
(Photo: Eduardo Stanley)

On Tuesday, October 13, Zocalo Public Square presented the panel discussion “Can Fresno Win the War on Poverty?”

Fresno has a serious problem when it comes to poverty. A recent study, called “Architecture of Segregation,” produced by the Centurion Foundation, lists the cities with the highest concentrations of poverty by race and Fresno is in the top 10 of black, Latino and white poverty pockets. Fresno is the only California city to appear on the lists.

Also, Fresno was placed 7th on the “33 Poorest Cities” list created by California-based online research group, FindTheBest.com, using ACS data —the Five-Year American Community Survey of the Census Bureau.

The first thing to notice from the panel was that the stand point of view of the four panelist was very much alike: Mayor Ashley Swearengin, Fresno Bridge Academy founder Pete Weber —also a Mayor Swearengin’s consultant—, Edit LLC president Irma Olguin, and Poverello House executive director Cruz Avila.

The absence of the economist, sociologists, and other experts on the issue as well as activists was remarkable evident.


Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin (Photo: Eduardo Stanley)
Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin
(Photo: Eduardo Stanley)

Both Swearengin and Weber —by the way, Swearengin is co-founder of the Regional Jobs Initiative, somehow the “mother” of Fresno Bridge Academy — began criticizing non profit organizations. Ironically, the forum was put together by a non profit organization and Weber is part of one.

This was, perhaps, an early signal that the panel wouldn’t bring serious analysis or ideas about poverty.

Important to remark that addressing poverty should not be nonprofit organizations full responsibility. More so considering that in Fresno these organizations are not so influential in policy development as in other cities. Not to mention that they tent to be understaff and not so well funded. So why to spend time talking about them?

Weber then moved on criticizing President Johnson’s 1964 War on Poverty. “Has been a dismal failure, with trillions of dollars spent and no substantial evidence of change to show for it.” Somehow this is true, and once again irony calls: Weber’s non-profit recently got a $12.5 million grant from Uncle Sam.

“We’re breaking the mold. We’re doing things in Fresno that aren’t being done anywhere else in the country,” said Weber. He then explained such model, according to Zocalo’s report of it’s website: “Fresno Bridge Academy trains families in basic life and job search skills. Within 18 months of joining the program, 30 percent of families are able to get off food stamps.”

These proposed solutions to issues with such complexity such as poverty are common among politicians who usually choose not to address factors that can explain this phenomena from it roots.

Most commonly they tent to place the solutions to this problem on the poor and illustrate ways in which individuals could improve their lives and get off poverty if only they can get a job, have a vision and believe in themselves. Nevertheless if there are no jobs available the chances of people to improve their lives are very slim.

Panelists spent quite some time illustrating personal cases of success. Mayor Swearengin (elected in 2008, reelected in 2012) mentioned a case of a jelly manufacturer in which a worker makes $80,000 a year and the company’s owner cries for more workers that can fill similar positions.

To this point, Weber made references of how much agricultural industry jobs is changing and wages improving. He illustrated this statement mentioning the example of farmworkers with an iPad controlling irrigation systems which makes this job higher qualified, and therefore better paid. However he didn’t explain who places the irrigation pipes to begin with, or how many of those jobs are available.

Farmworkers are among the poorest in the region. In the image, children  of farmworkers during a representation of life  in their native Mexico (2015) (Foto: Eduardo Stanley)
Farmworkers are among the poorest in the region.
In the image, children of farmworkers during
a representation of life
in their native Mexico, 2015.
(Foto: Eduardo Stanley)

Farmworkers, immigrants

While farming is indeed changing, the human labor of farmworkers is still needed to plant, harvest and pruning. Nevertheless, they are poorly paid under the excuse that this is a low-skill job. In addition to this, their status of undocumented makes this labor force vulnerable to abuses despite the fact that they pay taxes for services they can’t receive —like unemployment and social security, which they can’t claim when retiring .

Noticeable was the fact that this example was the only instance in which panelists even mentioned farmworkers. Nevertheless, we should not forget that the City of Fresno is a rural city, located in the San Joaquin Valley, the agricultural hub of the country. A region characterized for high unemployment —Unemployment for September 2015 was 8.1 percent, a month of high labor demand due to seasonal harvest, according to a State of California’s report— and a region where non-agricultural jobs are limited, difficult to find and still underpaid.

Despite the severe drought Fresno County is undergoing, in 2014 it reported $7.2 billion in agricultural goods production. Yet, farmworkers’ salaries remain unchanged and extremely low. In my 30 years of journalism in this Valley, I never met a farmworker making more than $16,000 a year.

This translates in the fact that poverty can’t be explained just by unemployment but also ones need to look at the low wages of those contributing to the wealth of this region resulting in social inequalities. None of the panelists even got close to mention this social and economic paradox.

The word “immigrants” wasn’t mentioned either. However, the vast majority of farmworkers are immigrants. Many others immigrants hold jobs also agriculture-related, like packinghouses.

Considering that farmworkers are so poorly paid, we have to assume that when we talk about poverty we are somehow talking about farmworkers —most of them immigrants, coming from Latin American countries, particularly Mexico and other Central American countries… So, we are talking about Latino immigrant farmworkers.

In the City of Fresno, 46 percent of it’s population of almost 510,000 people, is Latino. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, Fresno’s Mayor, Mrs. Swearengin, has never made an effort to reach out this community —or communities.

Homeless and jobs

Homelessness was an issue panelist linked to poverty. By 2013, Fresno counted 2,537 homeless.

In 2013, Mayor Swearengin bulldozed a large homeless encampment and scattered its residents. Nevertheless she claims that because of this, homelessness in the city has dropped by as much as 50 percent, based on a yearly “point in time” survey, supported by U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, that sends residents out to the city’s streets to count the homeless population.

Swearengin statement was supported by another panelist, Mr. Cruz Avila, Poverello House’s director.

However, activist Mike Rhodes has a problem with the “point in time” methodology.

“Their points are flawed, the methodology is flawed in their counts,” said Rhodes on a news report dated June 1, 2015.

He then added, “The city is taking credit for lowering homelessness, when in fact, they are chasing and dispersing the homeless population. That means many homeless people are no longer counted.”

This news report came the same day Mayor Swearengin announced during a press conference, and in a triumphalist mood, the results of the “point in time” survey.

Mrs. Swearengin seems to dismiss the fact that dozens and dozens of homeless are encamping in parks, street corners, and parking lots, not to mention reaching neighborhoods long before considered out of their reach.

An op-ed piece written by city council member Clinton Olivier on Thursday, October 15, seems to contradict Mrs. Swearengin affirmations: “The truth is they didn’t go anywhere. The homeless are still here and thriving, thousands of them, rifling through our trash cans to steal ratepayer-owned recyclables, panhandling on medians, breaking into our homes and garages, burning down vacant buildings and defecating on our children’s playgrounds.”

Fresno Mayor couldn’t show any significant proof of how she is helping locals to get better jobs. Or a job, for that matter. Or better yet how they can get off poverty.

Some local residents even call her a “job-killer.”

And to proof their point, these people remember when in 2012 she proposed to privatize the City’s trash pick up service. This concept, very dear to conservative politicians with the excuse to save money, has a big problem: private companies trend to reduce their labor force in order to increase their revenues. Which means more unemployment, less taxes collected and less consumption.

The Mayor’s idea was resisted and locals asked to vote on the issue. The result, was a defeat to Mrs. Swearengin in 2013.

Perhaps influenced by this political defeat, she later broke away from her Republican ideology and supported the construction of the High Speed Rail which is expected to bring hundred of jobs to Fresno.

This could be seen as part of Mrs. Swearengin’s efforts to place herself as a moderate conservative considering the current political mood of the state —leaning Democrat or, at least, not-so-conservative— due to her future political ambitions. For example, in 2014, she run for state controller, loosing to Betty Yee.

The severe drought is affecting poor people the most. (Photo: Eduardo Stanley)
The severe drought
is affecting poor people the most.
(Photo: Eduardo Stanley)

Education, dialogue and future jobs

Panelists concluded by affirming the importance of education, particularly technological education. Irma Olguin highlighted Fresno’s entrepreneurial spirit a factor, which according to her, could help improve the chances of attracting companies to the area.

In this regard, Weber considers Fresno could get some high tech factories or labs from the Silicon Valley. But it wasn’t clear if the City is doing something to convince those companies to come here. Without a doubt, both elements are very important.

Finally, while the panel was to same extend a disappointment considering that panelists didn’t get to the point and were unable to focus on the real issues surrounding poverty, such as the current economic system and its social inequalities, at least this panel can be considered an important step to bring the issue of poverty to the forefront and make people aware that it has not gone away.

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