In the American West, Arbitrary Poverty Designations Are Shortchanging the Rural Poor

Elizabeth Zach April 10, 2018

Consuelo Andrade, 39, stands outside her home in Tonyville, Calif., population 316.

Two years ago, Con­sue­lo Andrade was liv­ing in a vil­lage with her grand­par­ents in Michoacán, Mex­i­co, where she reg­u­lar­ly saw neigh­bors and acquain­tances return­ing from time spent work­ing in the Unit­ed States. Their clothes were classy; some drove cars. She was mes­mer­ized. No one, how­ev­er, spoke about the work up north, and what it took to earn and save to buy such impres­sive goods.

Manuel Andrade was one of the men who returned to Michoacán. He even­tu­al­ly asked Con­sue­lo to mar­ry him and return to Tulare Coun­ty, Calif., where he has picked oranges since 1979. Like count­less immi­grants before her, she expect­ed, if not for­tune, then cer­tain­ly a bet­ter, more pros­per­ous life in Cal­i­for­nia than the pover­ty she knew in Mexico.

What she found was not quite what she envisioned. 

Con­sue­lo wears bright blue sweat pants, an olive green sweater and a ban­dana tucked back with bob­by pins. At age 39, she appears weary. But at the sight of vis­i­tors, her smile is imme­di­ate and she ush­ers them into her yard. Her home is like all the oth­ers here on Road 216 in Tonyville: crum­bling paint, shaky floors and stairs, grav­el and weeds, dead tree branch­es, laun­dry lines, and plas­tic sheet­ing over win­dows to cut down on the drafts. Like many fam­i­lies in the Cen­tral Val­ley, the Andrades rely on bot­tled water for house­hold use, due to nitrate con­t­a­m­i­na­tion in the water that comes out of the tap. But the rent is afford­able at $400 per month.

The lan­guage, the pace of life — it was all so strange, so dis­ori­ent­ing, recalls Con­sue­lo about her arrival in 2016. Pick­ing oranges day in and day out has got­ten eas­i­er, she says, now that Manuel bought her a lad­der. She can fill up to three box­es with the fruit from eight trees. Ordi­nar­i­ly, she and Manuel would each earn $88 per day at the Cal­i­for­nia min­i­mum wage of $11 per hour, but with increas­ing vision prob­lems and asso­ci­at­ed doc­tor vis­its, he only works half-days, com­pound­ing their eco­nom­ic fragility. 

Nei­ther Manuel nor Con­sue­lo have heard of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, so they wouldn’t know that the author set much of his tale right here in Tulare Coun­ty. Next year, it will be 80 years since the book was pub­lished. Manuel has been here 40 of those 80 years, just like the count­less sec­ond- and third-gen­er­a­tion Lati­no farm­work­ers who make up a crit­i­cal com­po­nent of California’s eco­nom­ic back­bone. They work long, hard hours, uncom­plain­ing as they feed the state and the nation. Yet their income does not keep pace with ever increas­ing expens­es, despite the fact that the min­i­mum wage law gov­erns their month­ly incomes.

Why the fed­er­al government’s var­ied def­i­n­i­tions of per­sis­tent pover­ty matter

The U.S. Cen­sus Bureau report­ed in July 2016 that Tulare County’s pover­ty rate is 24.7 per­cent. Twen­ty per­cent is con­sid­ered high.

The gov­ern­ment uses cen­sus data to define coun­ties as offi­cial­ly Per­sis­tent­ly Poor” if 20 per­cent or more of their pop­u­la­tions were liv­ing in pover­ty dur­ing the last 30 years, as mea­sured by the 1980, 1990 and 2000 decen­ni­al cen­sus­es and the Cen­sus Bureau’s 2007 – 2011 Amer­i­can Com­mu­ni­ty Sur­vey. The def­i­n­i­tion affects at least 15 dif­fer­ent spend­ing pro­grams with­in the Depart­ments of Agri­cul­ture, Com­merce, Edu­ca­tion, Labor, Health and Human Ser­vices, Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment, Trans­porta­tion, the Trea­sury and the EPA.

This fed­er­al fund­ing trans­lates into life sta­ples: waste­water sys­tems and clean water deliv­ery, decent low-income hous­ing, lit­er­a­cy pro­grams, eco­nom­ic devel­op­ment, roads and telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion infra­struc­ture. The USDA, for exam­ple, has a man­date for 20 per­cent of its lend­ing to go to per­sis­tent pover­ty areas. In addi­tion, the new tax law cre­ates Oppor­tu­ni­ty Zones,” but this is based on cen­sus tracts, not coun­ties. States can des­ig­nate 25 per­cent of their high need” cen­sus tracts as these oppor­tu­ni­ty zones, which trans­lates into sig­nif­i­cant tax ben­e­fits to encour­age invest­ment there. 

Today, there are 353 per­sis­tent­ly poor coun­ties in the Unit­ed States, of which 301 are rur­al, and the rest urban. Eighty-four per­cent of per­sis­tent pover­ty coun­ties are in the South. Much of Appalachia qual­i­fies. In the West, 21 rur­al (non-metro) coun­ties are offi­cial­ly des­ig­nat­ed as per­sis­tent pover­ty coun­ties. More­over, agen­cies adopt new def­i­n­i­tions over time. The USDA’s def­i­n­i­tion is not the same as HUD’s, and the one at HHS dif­fers from the Treasury’s criteria.

Though per­sis­tent pover­ty des­ig­na­tions are changed and updat­ed reg­u­lar­ly, not a sin­gle rur­al Cal­i­for­nia coun­ty qual­i­fies. The rea­son, say experts, is that many of the state’s rur­al poor don’t actu­al­ly live in rur­al coun­ties. Instead, the state’s large coun­ties often include high­er income urban pop­u­la­tions that hide sub­stan­tial rur­al areas where per­sis­tent pover­ty exists — like Tulare Coun­ty, which is an urban county.

Like­wise, Fres­no is an urban Cal­i­for­nia coun­ty based on pop­u­la­tion. But the coun­ty also has size­able rur­al cen­sus tracts, west of the city of Fres­no, that are per­sis­tent­ly poor. 

Iso­lat­ed geo­graph­i­cal­ly, neglect­ed and shroud­ed from main­stream Amer­i­ca, these areas lack resources and eco­nom­ic lever­age. They have suf­fered from decades of dis­in­vest­ment and high pover­ty rates. In short, because the gov­ern­ment defines pover­ty by the coun­ty as a whole rather than by indi­vid­ual cen­sus tract, they are denied access to fund­ing and pro­grams that could help.

Per­sis­tent pover­ty has always been mea­sured by coun­ty and because of that, the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment has been reluc­tant to con­sid­er oth­er options,” says Jan­ice Wad­dell, who was State Direc­tor for Rur­al Devel­op­ment Cal­i­for­nia for the U.S. Depart­ment of Agri­cul­ture between 2015 and 2017, and pri­or to that worked for 35 years with­in the agency. That real­ly puts Cal­i­for­nia at a dis­ad­van­tage when our rur­al pover­ty is very con­sid­er­able. It excludes so many pop­u­la­tions and doesn’t reflect what’s hap­pen­ing on the ground. A per­sis­tent pover­ty coun­ty can access more funds, or get first shot at fund­ing when there are ini­tia­tives that come out to tar­get high pover­ty areas. Cal­i­for­nia is dis­ad­van­taged because it often can­not com­pete for those funds.” 

More­over, when the cost of liv­ing in Cal­i­for­nia is mea­sured against medi­an house­hold incomes, the state is the poor­est in the nation, despite its stel­lar job and eco­nom­ic growth. More than 20 per­cent of its res­i­dents — 8 mil­lion peo­ple — are strug­gling to pay bills, accord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus’ sup­ple­men­tal pover­ty mea­sure, which takes into con­sid­er­a­tion food, hous­ing, tax­es and med­ical costs. Last year, these strik­ing fig­ures prompt­ed Cal­i­for­nia State Assem­bly Repub­li­can Leader Chad Mayes, who rep­re­sents San Bernardi­no and River­side coun­ties, to declare pover­ty California’s most urgent priority.

An on-the-ground look at per­sis­tent pover­ty in two states

In Jan­u­ary, I spent a few weeks in rur­al Cal­i­for­nia and New Mex­i­co to try and bet­ter under­stand how these fed­er­al pover­ty guide­lines affect res­i­dents — and in par­tic­u­lar at a time when the over­all urban econ­o­my is boom­ing and unem­ploy­ment is down. In Cal­i­for­nia, in addi­tion to Tulare Coun­ty, I vis­it­ed Fres­no and River­side Coun­ties. In New Mex­i­co I vis­it­ed two coun­ties — Taos and Dona Ana. These five coun­ties have sim­i­lar economies and demo­graph­ics; all five have sig­nif­i­cant His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tions, all have vast rur­al areas and all strug­gle with drought, con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water and lack afford­able hous­ing. The dif­fer­ence, how­ev­er, is that the New Mex­i­can coun­ties qual­i­fy for per­sis­tent pover­ty sta­tus, allow­ing them access to fund­ing and anti-pover­ty programs.

On Avenue 66, between La Quin­ta and Ther­mal in California’s River­side Coun­ty, Steinbeck’s prose comes to life. Here, along a cor­ri­dor of date palms lin­ing the road, there is a some­what Mid­dle East­ern regal ambi­ence. Dri­ving it, you may expect to end up at a desert palace. Indeed, trav­el­ing west­ward, that wouldn’t be far off the mark: La Quinta’s lush world-class golf cours­es and man­i­cured yards and homes behind auto­mat­ed gates are an oasis set against the strik­ing San­ta Rosa and San Jac­in­to Mountains.

But dri­ve just a few miles east­ward and you will pass let­tuce fields and orange orchards, and cadres of labor­ers among each, ful­ly cov­ered to shield them­selves from sun and farm chem­i­cals. Even­tu­al­ly you will reach the decrepit mobile homes scat­tered along unpaved roads and see dilap­i­dat­ed trail­ers behind met­al fences, shroud­ed by dry­ing laun­dry and aban­doned cars, a world away from Palm Springs and La Quinta.

Samuel Cas­tro has lived in Ther­mal for near­ly four decades. It was poor when he arrived from his native Michoacán and it’s with­out ques­tion still poor. He speaks no Eng­lish — he explains, he was too busy work­ing in the fields to learn. But he’s moved up a bit in this world: for the past 15 years, he’s owned and man­aged the 12 mobile homes at the Mezquit Mobile Home Park in Ther­mal. Walk­ing among the homes, he describes try­ing to con­vince res­i­dents to get rid of old cars that no longer run and are left block­ing fire routes. There are no sew­er lines to his park; he must man­age a sep­tic sys­tem. He details the coun­ty fees and per­mits that have left him drown­ing in debt, and prob­lems with the for­mer own­er who refused to vacate the prop­er­ty. He’s scared, he doesn’t want to speak ill of the bureau­cra­cy; he doesn’t want to jeop­ar­dize his lot.

For­mer farm work­er Samuel Cas­tro talks out­side the prop­er­ties he now helps man­age in the unin­cor­po­rat­ed com­mu­ni­ty of Ther­mal, in River­side Coun­ty, Calif. (Image: Eliz­a­beth Zach)
It’s hard for me to cov­er all costs,” he says through a trans­la­tor. I’ve tried to raise the rent but then the ten­ants com­plain to the coun­ty and there’s a back­lash.” At one point, the coun­ty offered a pro­gram to mobile home own­ers like Cas­tro to trade in old­er homes for new­er ones and have the ten­ants pay the insur­ance and fees for their new dwellings. This helped him. But it was short-lived; the pro­gram, fund­ed in part by the U.S. Depart­ment of Hous­ing and Urban Devel­op­ment (HUD) and Com­mu­ni­ty Devel­op­ment Finan­cial Insti­tu­tions (CDFI), no longer exists. If River­side was a per­sis­tent pover­ty coun­ty, it would have pri­or­i­ty sta­tus when com­pet­ing for fed­er­al fund­ing that could alle­vi­ate its hous­ing and water woes. 

Instead, Cas­tro does the best he can, walk­ing the premis­es dai­ly to inspect the prop­er­ties and make sure all is up to code and plead­ing with ten­ants to remove unused cars and do their part to keep the area presentable.

Some 350 miles north of Ther­mal, in Fres­no, Dave Herb has spent his adult life puz­zling over sit­u­a­tions like Castro’s and gen­er­a­tional pover­ty — ever since he arrived in Kings Coun­ty, Calif., as a VISTA vol­un­teer in 1969. Back then, he says, I thought to myself, God must not love this place.’” 

A Penn­syl­va­nia coal coun­try native, he says he came to Cal­i­for­nia to save the poor” and to teach peo­ple how to be squeaky wheels.” He even­tu­al­ly set­tled in Fres­no where he raised a fam­i­ly and worked for decades in coun­ty pol­i­tics. He has an unmis­tak­able affec­tion for his adopt­ed home, in par­tic­u­lar when he notes proud­ly that the writer William Saroy­an lived his entire 72 years here and, even as an old­er gen­tle­man, could be seen ped­al­ing his bike around town. 

Long-time Fres­no res­i­dent, Dave Herb, explains how Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Cen­tral Val­ley has and has not changed. (Image: Eliz­a­beth Zach)

He has watched pris­ons — a dozen today — pro­lif­er­ate through­out the Cen­tral Val­ley, California’s 450-mile long agri­cul­tur­al pow­er­house that par­al­lels the Pacif­ic Ocean and the Sier­ra Neva­da. The pris­ons pro­vide jobs, but also mutate the fab­ric of cher­ished farm­ing com­mu­ni­ties and increase sub­ur­ban sprawl. He has watched neigh­bor­hoods diver­si­fy and gen­tri­fy and develop.

The Cen­tral Val­ley is a clas­sic case of estab­lish­ing scat­tered com­mu­ni­ties with­out ade­quate ser­vices,” says Herb, as he dri­ves through Cal­wa, a low-income Fres­no neigh­bor­hood. Over the years, coun­ties here have allowed scat­tered devel­op­ments often with­out ade­quate lev­els of urban fire pro­tec­tion, police or infrastructure.”

These com­mu­ni­ties were often built on unin­cor­po­rat­ed land, Herb says, and the devel­op­ment stan­dards on that land, were much, much low­er than they are in cities. There were no require­ments for street lights, side­walks, paving, gut­ters, they often had no com­mu­ni­ty water sys­tems, and many relied on pri­vate wells.”

The his­to­ry is dif­fer­ent for every com­mu­ni­ty, he explains. The scat­tered nature of the devel­op­ment was some­times due to farm­ing and agri­cul­tur­al needs, but not always. 

The west­ern half of Fres­no Coun­ty is very poor and has been so for decades. But fur­ther east around Fres­no, it’s some­what more pros­per­ous. The USDA, which could pro­vide the most fund­ing Fres­no County’s rur­al areas, such as deeply impov­er­ished com­mu­ni­ties like Men­do­ta and Fire­baugh, does not rec­og­nize it as a per­sis­tent­ly poor coun­ty. Nor, for that mat­ter, does it rec­og­nize it as a rur­al county.

A rur­al New Mex­i­co com­mu­ni­ty con­sid­ers its options

On a sun­ny yet freez­ing Sat­ur­day after­noon in Rio Lucio, a town in Taos Coun­ty, Melanie Del­ga­do sat among more than a dozen area res­i­dents in a trail­er that serves as the Rio Lucio Com­mu­ni­ty Cen­ter. Sit­ting on met­al fold­ing chairs around tables form­ing a cres­cent moon, some par­tic­i­pants sipped from water bot­tles, oth­ers from Sty­ro­foam cups filled with gin­ger ale. 

The meet­ing agen­da was focused on but one item: water.

As a com­mu­ni­ty ser­vices coor­di­na­tor with the New Mex­i­co Envi­ron­ment Department’s Drink­ing Water Bureau, Del­ga­do spends her days help­ing rur­al com­mu­ni­ties fig­ure out how to deliv­er clean water to res­i­dents and busi­ness­es and how to treat waste­water. She also helps them deter­mine whether they are eli­gi­ble for grants that would cov­er their infra­struc­ture costs and pay for cer­ti­fied water oper­a­tors, who are trained to ensure clean water deliv­ery and man­age waste­water systems.

So she knows bet­ter than most the issues of drought and con­t­a­m­i­na­tion plague this moun­tain­ous region. In the month pri­or the meet­ing, one water sys­tem had three major water leaks. Anoth­er sys­tem, at an ele­men­tary school, drained 250,000 gal­lons of water over twelve hours; no one could find the valve to stanch the flood. Some com­mu­ni­ties around here don’t have water oper­a­tors; there’s no econ­o­my of scale and infra­struc­ture is expen­sive. The one bright spot, every­one agrees, is that local lead­ers are sym­pa­thet­ic to keep­ing rates low, rec­og­niz­ing that this is a low-income county. 

Well, it is and it isn’t,” Del­ga­do said after the meet­ing as she helped fold and stack the met­al chairs. 

Here in Taos Coun­ty, the medi­an house­hold income is $31,112 and the pover­ty rate report­ed in July 2017, accord­ing to the U.S. Cen­sus Bureau, was 22.4 per­cent But Del­ga­do says the medi­an income fig­ure may be mis­lead­ing. The city of Taos, with its world-renowned art gal­leries and near­by ski resorts, is a haven for the wealthy. Julia Roberts has a sea­son­al house there. Robert Red­ford calls Taos home. (In fact, it’s also where Red­ford filmed his 1988 Mila­gro Bean­field War, which is set in a poor north­ern New Mex­i­co town that los­es its water to polit­i­cal and busi­ness interests.)

The county’s his­tor­i­cal pover­ty, how­ev­er, has earned it per­sis­tent pover­ty sta­tus, which allows it to com­pete for rur­al devel­op­ment fund­ing. Such fund­ing helps towns like Rio Lucio and near­by Peñas­co and Rodarte, which con­tin­ue to strug­gle with pay­ing for clean water.

Near­ly 500 miles south of Rio Lucio, the high desert grad­u­al­ly flat­tens, allow­ing farm­ers in Dona Ana Coun­ty to grow the area’s sig­na­ture chili pep­pers. The Hatch Chile Fes­ti­val on Labor Day week­end attracts more than 30,000 vis­i­tors from around the world to the town of Hatch, pop­u­la­tion below 2,000, earn­ing it cov­er­age in the BBC and Food Net­work. But for most of the year, this is a lone­ly, sear­ing landscape. 

It’s all Lisa Neal has known, grow­ing up here on her par­ents’ onion farm. She has a nat­ur­al affec­tion and enthu­si­asm for Hatch, serv­ing as its library direc­tor as well as the Hatch Val­ley Eco­nom­ic Coordinator.

One after­noon dur­ing my vis­it, she drove through a neigh­bor­hood where farm labor­ers live and which are sim­i­lar to those in California’s Cen­tral Val­ley. Both stretched amid dusty roads and were pop­u­lat­ed with wire fences and makeshift trail­ers. Neal lat­er point­ed to an arroyo that flood­ed over lev­ees in 2006 and last year, and she described the water and waste­water prob­lems Hatch has had to deal with across peri­ods of extreme drought and flash flood­ing. But because of Dona Ana County’s per­sis­tent pover­ty sta­tus, it qual­i­fied last year for more than $500,000 in USDA fund­ing to ren­o­vate its water system. 

We’re eli­gi­ble for cer­tain library pro­grams, too,” Neal said, explain­ing the pover­ty she has observed in Hatch over the years. She receives increased state fund­ing for bilin­gual books and to teach cit­i­zen­ship, GED and lit­er­a­cy class­es. Fund­ing for this is part­ly through the fed­er­al Library Ser­vices & Tech­nol­o­gy Act, which sup­ports libraries in under­served rur­al com­mu­ni­ties and chil­dren from fam­i­lies with incomes below the pover­ty line. 

One of those chil­dren was Ana Bal­cazar, whose fam­i­ly arrived in the Hatch Val­ley near­ly 30 years ago. Her father was 13 when he came; now 40, he and his wife are rais­ing five chil­dren. A num­ber of their fam­i­ly mem­bers work for Lisa’s sis­ter, whose hus­band has a farm­ing busi­ness. As soon as Ana was old enough — age 12 — she, too, was in the fields. She is now 18.

We picked onions and I learned how to top off their stems,” she says. It was hard work. I knew it then even though I had noth­ing to com­pare it to. My father would make a game out of it for us and we’d have com­pe­ti­tions to see who could do the most work. Dur­ing the sum­mer, we’d be up at 4 a.m., start work at 5:00 a.m. and fin­ish some­time in the after­noon. My grand­fa­ther is in his 70s and he’s still work­ing in the fields.”

In 2016, Bal­cazar applied for, and got, a part-time after-school job at the library. She learned how to shelve books, helped vis­i­tors use the com­put­ers and trans­lat­ed for those who couldn’t speak Eng­lish. It opened up a world for her, she says, adding that it gave her more time to read and gave her con­fi­dence to apply to the Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co in Albu­querque. She was accept­ed and will enroll this fall. 

Ana Bal­cazar shelves books at a library in New Mex­i­co’s Hatch Val­ley. (Image: Eliz­a­beth Zach) 

Such sto­ries, of course, are not new. This coun­try was built on the backs of immi­grants like Ana’s par­ents, many dis­ori­ent­ed just like Con­sue­lo Andrade, but forg­ing ahead so that their chil­dren can have bet­ter lives. In California’s Cen­tral Val­ley writ­ers like Stein­beck and Saroy­an cel­e­brat­ed the field hands — their dreams and mod­est ambitions.

It struck me lat­er that I had seen this same simul­ta­ne­ous fas­tid­i­ous­ness and accep­tance with the Andrades as I had the day before when I left Samuel Cas­tro. They all have, as Dave Herb had told me, been too busy the last decades work­ing them­selves to the bone to pay atten­tion to the bureau­crat­ic def­i­n­i­tions of their lives. 

(This report­ing was made pos­si­ble by a grant from the Mar­guerite Casey Foundation’s Jour­nal­ism Fel­low­ship. The foun­da­tion exists to help low-income fam­i­lies strength­en their voice and mobi­lize their com­mu­ni­ties in order to achieve a more just and equi­table soci­ety for all.” For more infor­ma­tion about their work, click here.)

Eliz­a­beth Zach is the staff writer at the non­prof­it Rur­al Com­mu­ni­ty Assis­tance Cor­po­ra­tion, where she cov­ers rur­al pover­ty and economies, the envi­ron­ment, and trib­al issues across the 13 states of the Amer­i­can West, includ­ing Alas­ka and Hawaii. In 2018, she report­ed on per­sis­tent pover­ty as a Mar­guerite Casey Foun­da­tion Equal Voic­es Jour­nal­ism Fel­low. In 2016, she was a fel­low at the Uni­ver­si­ty of South­ern Cal­i­for­ni­a’s Annen­berg School of Jour­nal­ism, writ­ing on rur­al health­care in Cal­i­for­nia. In 2015, she was a media fel­low at Stan­ford Uni­ver­si­ty’s Bill Lane Cen­ter for the Amer­i­can West, for which she researched and wrote about women farm­ers and ranchers.
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