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Commentary: Why Does Fresno Keep Growing, Despite High Poverty?

Oct 8, 2015

Fresno regularly ranks as one of the poorest metro areas in the United States. So why do people keep moving there?

The short, if incomplete, answer: Fresno is in California. And there is something very different about our state’s poor cities.

In other parts of America, people have abandoned cities labeled poor—because of high poverty rates and low rates of education among residents—in big numbers. Detroit’s population fell from 1 million in 1995 to 688,000 today. Cleveland’s population dropped from 500,000 in 1999 to less than 390,000 today. Population declines have been seen in places like Buffalo, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, Birmingham, and Toledo. I cut my teeth as a reporter at the Baltimore Sun, and my main job was watching people flee; Charm City’s population, once more than 900,000, is down to 620,000 today.

But in California, our poor cities don’t lose people. To the contrary, they are magnets, drawing new people and maintaining strong population growth. Fresno, our poorest large city, had 392,000 people in 1995 and 520,000 now. Bakersfield has grown from 185,000 in 1990 to 363,000 today. Stockton and San Bernardino grew in population, even as they slid into bankruptcy, and they’re still adding population post-bankruptcy. The dynamic extends beyond cities to rural places; California’s two poorest counties, Imperial and Tulare, have both doubled their populations since 1978.

This growth is particularly noteworthy given the slower gains in the state’s population—in 2010, California failed to add a seat in the House of Representatives for the first time in its history—as a result of a net outflow of people to other states, relatively flat immigration, and a declining birth rate. The people moving into California’s poorer cities have caused some head-scratching elsewhere; the conservative Manhattan Institute marveled that to examine various city populations, “one would never guess that it was San Bernardino and Stockton, not Akron and Cincinnati, that recently went bankrupt.”

Indeed, the success of our underappreciated cities may come as something of a surprise to Californians, who hear constantly about all the people who are leaving California. These cities’ growth may sound even more surprising when you know that it’s the poor—those making less than $30,000 a year—who are most likely to leave California. The two contrasting narratives around poverty—California as a place that the poor are fleeing, and California as a place with the highest percentage of poor people of any state in the country—may further confound. Is California attracting the poor, or repelling them?

The answer, of course, is both.

Poor people are leaving our expensive and crowded coastal counties—which now have the costliest housing and densest urban communities in the United States—in search of places where they can improve their standard of living, and find a home and space. The basketcase known as Los Angeles County—with its perfect storm of high poverty, high housing prices and lagging job growth—has become particularly adept at driving people away. While many coastal people leave the state entirely, many head, at least at first, to our inland cities.

There they are joined by migrants, some of them doing seasonal labor on farms, and Californians from smaller, rural communities who have come to places like Fresno and Stockton to attend college and find jobs.

There are many reasons to stick it out in these parts of California, rather than to leave the state. While California higher education has become costly, our universities and community colleges still provide good value. If you’re poor, California offers services that are more generous than those of many other states. CalFresh (food stamps), CalWORKs (welfare for families with children), and the new state earned income tax credit—in combination with federal tax credits, housing subsidies, supplemental security income, and free school meals—provide a cushion, and are credited with keeping the poverty rate from being even higher.

California’s poor cities also offer another amenity: warm weather. Research shows that having warm January weather is among the reliable predictors of urban growth. Many of these cities also offer vibrant arts and nearby recreation, at very low cost. Of course, these cities’ popularity has made them denser and more expensive, as well. California’s taxes and growth-restricting regulations create barriers to building housing, though inland cities tend to be more flexible on development than rich jurisdictions on the coast.

This escape-valve role that these cities play hasn’t won them much respect. The supposedly progressive leaders of this supposedly progressive state too often see poor people—and the places where they live—more as burdens than potential assets. Tellingly, Gov. Brown and other Democrats in Sacramento lament the more than 12 million on MediCal (California’s version of Medicaid) as a budget burden, instead of celebrating this expansion of health coverage and doing more to make sure that the newly covered can use their MediCal to get fast, high-quality health care.

This is a very old fear in California: that we are being over-run by the poor. Hollywood famously sabotaged Upton Sinclair’s 1934 gubernatorial campaign with phony movie reel ads of “poor people” declaring they were heading to California if Sinclair won and established cash payments for the needy. We are overdue for an attitude shift, in no small part because median income declined in California after 2007 and we are becoming a more working-class place.

We should start by supporting—and treasuring—our growing poor cities. If California is—in an oft-repeated phrase—America’s America, these cities are California’s Californias. Today, municipalities all over the country are all chasing the same narrow swath of creative college-educated hipsters with tech skills. Might it be more advantageous, in this age of American inequality, for a state to champion cities that attract poor people, and to figure out ways for those cities to do better by their residents?

In California, a focus on poor people and poor places feels like an imperative. Many of our wealthiest places are rapidly aging; these growing poor cities are almost all younger than the state average. And by measures of well-being, their poor residents are just as happy as their wealthier counterparts.

You may think it’s odd to focus efforts on attracting, retaining, and nurturing the less fortunate, but I can think of at least one nation that has done pretty well by positioning itself as a mecca for the poor. Perhaps someone could erect copies of the Statue of Liberty along Highway 99, visible to anyone approaching Fresno, alongside signs with the famous sonnet of Emma Lazarus, transported from New York Harbor to a new California context:

“Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore.”

Joe Mathews is California & innovation editor for Zócalo Public Square, for which he writes the Connecting California column.