By Eduardo Stanley
Editor’s note: The sources for the information included herein are available in the online version of this article.
On Oct. 13, Zocalo Public Square presented a panel discussion titled “Can Fresno Win the War on Poverty?” Fresno has a serious problem when it comes to poverty. A recent study, Architecture of Segregation, produced by the Centurion Foundation, lists the U.S. 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.
Moreover, Fresno placed seventh on the “33 Poorest Cities” list created by a California-based online research group, FindTheBest.com, using the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey data.
The first thing to note about the public square panel is that the perspective of the four panelists was similar. The panelists were Fresno Mayor Ashley Swearengin; Fresno Bridge Academy founder Pete Weber, also a Swearengin consultant; Edit LLC President Irma Olguin; and Poverello House Executive Director Cruz Avila. Notably, Swearengin is co-founder of the Regional Jobs Initiative, which is the “mother” of the Fresno Bridge Academy. The absence of economists, sociologists and other experts on the issue, as well as activists, was remarkably evident.
Both Swearengin and Weber began their comments by criticizing nonprofit organizations. Ironically, the forum was put together by a nonprofit organization and Weber is part of one. This was perhaps an early indication that the panel wouldn’t address serious analysis or ideas about poverty.
Of course, addressing poverty should not be the sole responsibility of nonprofit organizations. In Fresno, these organizations are not as influential in policy development as in other cities. And they tend to be understaffed and not well funded. So why spend time talking about them?
Weber moved on to criticize President Lyndon Johnson’s 1964 War on Poverty as “a dismal failure, with trillions of dollars spent and no substantial evidence of change to show for it.” Again, irony calls: Weber’s nonprofit 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 one such model: “[The] Fresno Bridge Academy trains families in basic life and job search skills. Within 18 months of joining the program, 30% of families are able to get off food stamps.”
These types of proposed solutions to issues with such complexity as poverty are common among politicians who usually choose not to address the factors that can explain these phenomena from their roots. Politicians tend to place the impetus for resolving this problem on the poor by illustrating ways in which individuals could improve their lives and get off poverty if only they would get a job, have vision and believe in themselves. However, if no jobs are available the likelihood of people improving their lives is slim.
The panelists spent some time highlighting personal cases of success. Mayor Swearengin (elected in 2008 and reelected in 2012) mentioned the case of a jelly manufacturer where a worker makes $80,000 a year but the company’s owner cries for more workers to fill similar positions.
To this point, Weber referenced how much agricultural industry jobs are changing and wages improving. He mentioned an example of farmworkers with an iPad controlling irrigation systems, making the job skilled 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.
While farming is indeed changing, the human labor of farmworkers is still needed to plant, harvest and prune. These workers are poorly paid under the excuse that farm work is a low-skill job. In addition, their undocumented status makes this labor force vulnerable to abuses despite the fact that they pay taxes for services they can’t receive such as unemployment benefits and Social Security, which they can’t claim when retiring.
Notably, Weber’s example was the only instance in which the panelists even mentioned farmworkers. However, 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. It is a region characterized by high unemployment—unemployment for September 2015 was 8.1%, a month of high labor demand due to seasonal harvest—and with limited non-agricultural jobs, which are 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 have never met a farmworker making more than $16,000 a year.
Poverty can’t be explained just by unemployment. One also needs to look at the low wages of those contributing to the wealth of this region, thereby resulting in social inequalities. None of the panelists mentioned this social and economic paradox.
The term immigrants wasn’t mentioned either. However, the vast majority of farmworkers are immigrants. Many other immigrants hold jobs that are agriculture-related, such as those in the 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. So, we are talking about Latino immigrant farmworkers.
In the city of Fresno, 46% of the population of almost 510,000 people is Latino. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, Fresno’s mayor, Swearengin, has never made an effort to reach out to this community—or communities.
Homeless and Jobs
The panelists linked the issue of homelessness to poverty. In 2013, Fresno counted 2,537 homeless.
In 2013, Mayor Swearengin bulldozed a large homeless encampment and scattered its residents. She claims that this action resulted in homelessness in the city dropping as much as 50%, based on a yearly point-in-time survey supported by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development that sends residents out to the city’s streets to count the homeless population. Swearengin’s statement was supported by Poverello House’s Avila.
Activist Mike Rhodes, however, 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.
“The city is taking credit for lowering homelessness,” Rhodes added, “when in fact, they are chasing and dispersing the homeless population. That means many homeless people are no longer counted.”
Rhodes’ news report came the same day that Swearengin announced during a press conference, in a triumphant mood, the results of Fresno’s point-in-time survey.
Swearengin seems to dismiss the fact that dozens of homeless are encamping in parks, street corners and parking lots, not to mention reaching neighborhoods previously long considered out of their reach.
An op-ed written by Fresno City Council Member Clint Olivier (Fresno Bee, Oct. 15) seems to contradict Swearengin’s 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.”
Swearengin couldn’t show any significant proof of how she is helping locals to get better jobs. Or any job, for that matter. Or better yet, how they can get out of poverty.
Some local residents even call her a “job killer.” To prove their point, they note that in 2012 she tried to privatize the city’s residential trash pickup service. This concept, dear to conservative politicians with the excuse of saving money, has a big problem: Private companies tend to reduce their labor force in order to increase their revenues. That means more unemployment, fewer taxes collected and less consumption.
The mayor’s idea was resisted and locals demanded to vote on the issue. The result was a defeat to Swearengin in 2013.
Perhaps influenced by this political defeat, she broke away from her Republican ideology and supported the construction of high-speed rail, which is expected to bring hundreds of jobs to Fresno. This could be seen as part of Swearengin’s efforts to place herself as a moderate conservative considering the current political mood of the state— leaning Democratic, or at least, not-so-conservative, due to her future political ambitions. For example, in 2014, she ran for state controller, losing to Betty Yee.
Education, Dialogue and Future Jobs
The panelists concluded by affirming the importance of education, particularly technological education. Olguin highlighted Fresno’s entrepreneurial spirit as a factor that, according to her, could help improve the chances of attracting companies to the area.
In this regard, Weber believes that 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 types of companies to come here. Without a doubt, both elements are important.
Finally, although the panel was to some extent a disappointment in that the 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 the panel can be considered an important step toward bringing the issue of poverty to the forefront and making people aware that it has not gone away.
After graduating from film school at the University of La Plata, Argentina, Eduardo Stanley received a scholarship for postgraduate studies in semiotics at the University of Bucharest, Romania. Then he moved to Mexico, where he taught at the University of Sinaloa. Stanley later moved to California, developing a career as a journalist and photographer—writing mainly in Spanish. Stanley also has covered stories in Argentina, Colombia, Spain and Mexico. He currently freelances for several Latino media outlets and hosts a radio show in Spanish on KFCF-FM 88.1 in Fresno.