A Weird Sort of Depression

Bad and Not Bad

Economic statistics paint a pretty grim picture: annual growth coming out of a recession at an anemic 2.4%; unemployment rising at 9.6%; and foreclosures again on the rise.

Here in California the jobless rate is 12.5%. And where I live in Fresno County it hovers at 16%. Bleak.

I can see some of that general depression when my son’s friends gather out here at the farm. About 5-6 guys he knows are in their mid-twenties. Like him, all have BAs and skill sets (accounting, teaching credentials, computer degrees, bio certifications, etc.); all are “semi” working at part-time jobs (no benefits); and living at home. None have been able to find the sort of job we used to count on — a full-time entry position at about $30K that invariably leads to both advancement and higher salaries, along with retirement and health benefits. Higher education does not lead to a good job; no higher education leads to even less.

Great Expectations?

And yet, I don’t sense Dickensian poverty, in that the half-employed somehow through parental support, or cheap Chinese goods, or exemption from income taxes, seem to have plentiful appurtenances and even fairly nice cars. So what’s going on?

I was curious about this. So equipped with rough statistics, I decide to write down what I saw over a few days. Warning note: I live in southern Fresno County, rated, in per capita income, 49th out of California’s 56 counties.

I am not far from the Tulare County border (57th of 58th), at the nexus of the illegal alien explosion in Selma, California (rated in per capita income at 874 of 1076 California communities, at $12,834 per capita income).

I am also about 10 miles down Mt. View Ave. from Cutler/Orosi (1074 out of 1076 at $4,984), and in a 10-mile radius of about 5-6 communities that are ranked among the poorest 20 cities in California by per capita income. So this is what I would call an impoverished region.

Or is It?

I shop at the Food 4 Less 2 miles away, on the outskirts in town. Often I am one of only two or three English speakers in the huge store. People sometimes gawk at me as some sort of weird alien. The local Wal-Mart is not far away; English also seems rarely spoken there by the customers.

I ride a bike about 20 miles every other day I am not up in Palo Alto, usually heading west toward Highway 41, along little used, pot-holed one-lane roads that cut across the fabric of rural impoverished southwestern Fresno County. I see some strange things — cars simply dumping their wet garbage along the isolated roads, packs of pit bulls that seem to roam wild through the vineyards, a low-rider who cruises too close to my bike to give me the “look,” an occasional nut shooting his pistol without worry about trajectory, and again very few of the more refined sorts that live and work at Stanford. It is a rough Wild West frontier of sorts. (To wear biking gear [e.g., spandex, bright colors, designer shades, etc.] would be to beg violence.)

My point? Here in one of the poorest regions in California we are engaged in a great experiment of trying to turn mostly Mexican nationals (thousands without English, legality, or high school diplomas) from Oaxaca and Jalisco into American suburbanites within 10-20 years. And, of course, there is endemic poverty that translates into every depressing statistic imaginable. But there is something even stranger. By world and historical standards this is not an impoverished region.

The Veneer

What do I mean by that? I continued my informal survey of cars at Home Depot 3 miles away:15 late model Ford or Chevy pickups, 5 of them crew cabs. There were 22 (I counted) SUVs: Tahoes, Yukons, Escalades, etc.; at least 12 were what I would call new or nearly new. In addition, I saw 5 Honda Accords and 3 Camrys. Many, of course, are used, but they look great, both the result of better built cars, and an affluent society whose castoffs are better than the top-of-the-line new models twenty years ago.

Inside, the aisles were busy, especially the flower and garden section (is that a sign of disposable income?). About 2 miles away there is a large subdivision at the border of vineyard land. The homes are about 5-years-old, about 1800 sq. feet, 3 bedrooms, 2 baths. Newer cars are parked out front. I think the hot water is as hot as in those homes in Beverly Hills; the roofs leak less than brownstones on the Upper West Side, and the ranges cook as well as those in Atherton. I imagine the new air conditioners work as well as those in Chevy Chase.

On the face of it, here in one of the most impoverished areas of a bankrupt state, things are not going well. But yet, by any abstract measure, we are far wealthier than, say, in the mid-1960s when things were booming.

OK-How Can That Be?

Let me explain. In 1984, in my first year teaching at California State University, Fresno, a doctor’s wife used to brag that she was getting a “mobile phone.” About a year later she packed in a monstrosity in a suitcase-like contraption. It looked like a first-aid kit, and I recall that she boasted it cost over $1,000.

Yesterday, I saw about 150 people on i-Phones, BlackBerrys, and flip cell phones in the food store, many of them at the checkout line using social service prepaid food cards. The mobiles seemed to all work better than that $1,000 suitcase phone of yesteryear. Many users were text-messaging and emailing.

I remember our foreign language department’s first computer about 1985. It was a huge black-screened Burlington something. The secretary had a five-page booklet of prompts as ugly orange letters flashed across the screen. This week in the Selma Park I saw two impoverished men in straw hats playing checkers on a Mac laptop.

Today, a Spanish-speaking family was buying a bike for their son at Wal-Mart; it was about $50; in 1975 (35 years ago) I remember saving up in graduate school to buy a crappy bike for $50 to ride from East Palo Alto to the Stanford campus.

Statistics Lie

I could go on, but you get the picture. Poverty is now relative more than absolute. Statistics don’t quite reveal the true story of the underprivileged. In further curiosity, about the health care mess, I drove by the Selma Hospital Emergency Room, the Parlier Health Center, and another state-run medical clinic in Selma. All were packed, as was the Rite-Aid drug store prescription department.

In other words, a number of cosmic forces have combined to redefine poverty as I once saw it growing up in Fresno County, where outhouses, an occasional dirt street, and clunkers by the side of the road were common. Statistics on per capita income don’t factor in a number of criteria that have revolutionized American life.

1) Workers of world. The addition of over 1 billion Chinese and Indian workers in the capitalist global system in real dollars has made cheap consumer goods accessible to even the very poor. DVD players, Blu-ray discs, cell phones, Chinese-made jeans and shoes (indistinguishable to the naked eye from designer fashions) are now within the grasp of 300 million in this country. On very little money, a poor family that by federal statistical standards is proof of our collective failure has a cheap laptop, cell phone, TV, and can thus enjoy an electrical existence well beyond what was available to the billionaire in 1980.

2) Federal entitlement. The gargantuan expansion of federal and state entitlement, from subsidized housing and food, to free clinics, cheaper medicines, and free education programs for the disadvantaged, has meant that millions don’t save for college, don’t buy private health care insurance, and don’t have dental plans — and yet find that their families have access to health care and higher education in a way undreamed of by the middle class of the 1960s.

Yesterday at the AM/PM gas station, three Mexican nationals (yes, I am profiling) who spoke only Spanish at the gas island all had braces to correct an apparent overbite. In contrast, I remember in 1964 the rich kid in Selma who wore a bothersome horse collar around his neck as we gossiped that his parents were “millionaires” to afford such a contraption. For all the liberal hysteria, the U.S. entitlement industry is huge and gives even new arrivals from Mexico often the semblance of a middle-class existence. We get no credit for this, but millions leave central Mexico, not just for jobs, but for the larger landscape of a humane society in the north.

3) Non-compliance with the law. I conclude that the enforcement of the law is capricious. The number of those in my town who want to cut limbs, tile floors, haul trash, or do some roofing for cash is enormous. One can be on welfare, disability, or unemployment and augment income through cash wages, and it is done ubiquitously. Such stealthy workers do not appear in statistics as employed, but, together with federal largess, no taxes, and cash income, they can carve out an existence that ensures they are not poor by past standards.

I have had several minor brushes with uninsured drivers, either being hit by two of them, or having about five or six end up in my vineyard. I think we have a police force, but there seems to be very little consequence to driving without registration, insurance, or a license, since in all cases the drivers lacked one, or all, of the above “requirements.” In other words, vast numbers of Americans simply do not pay for the sort of fees the majority does, and that too saves money.

4) Taxes and debt. Lots of people are not paying income taxes and renouncing debt. April 15 is seen as a holiday rather than some Satanic reckoning, given that in my town most get credits rather than further bills. Cash sales denominate at swap meets (an enormous one down the road every Sunday draws thousands) and roadside food, produce, and gift stands, where sales taxes are nonexistent. In addition, our local airwaves are dominated by three commercial themes: how to get out of credit card debt, avoid paying the IRS, and skip out on your mortgage. It seems that 24/7, some fast-talking salesmen blurts out how you need not meet any of your contractual obligations.

Cruel Hearted?

Every time I read how the United States is cruel, without compassion, and destroying the poor, I wonder if the aggrieved DC-NY blogger or columnist has ever left his cocoon. Poor? It is now a relative term that means no Yellowstone or Yosemite or Disneyland with the family, no office at home, no big-screen TV in two rooms, no camp for the kids, and no new car every 4-5 years. No cultural opportunities or much travel. No daily Starbucks hit. But as far as clothing, housing, basic transportation, and appurtenances go, our poor are the 1960s rich. For about $2,000 one can buy new clothes at Wal-Mart, get into a Selma subsidized apartment, and buy enough food and furniture to experience what the once wealthy thought was their own monopoly.

To suggest all this is seen as either lunatic or reactionary, but it is true.

We have Dickensian statistics, but we are not London of the 1850s — or even Fresno of 1965.