How do you describe a situation in which one of the most agriculturally prolific valleys in the world is home to such profound poverty and hunger? How do you portray circumstances in which rampant malnutrition co-exists alongside unparalleled bounty? The word "irony" does not seem adequate.
Yet according to the Kern County Network for Children's 13th annual Kern County Report Card, released this week, that's the staggering contradiction that surrounds this and other areas of the fertile San Joaquin Valley.
According to the Report Card, fully 25 percent of Kern families with children lived below the poverty line in 2009, and their median annual income was 28 percent below the statewide percentage. That poverty was reflected in their need for nutritional assistance. More than 20,000 Kern County households have started receiving CalFresh assistance since 2007, a 66 percent increase in the number of households that now rely on the program formerly known as food stamps. And about 70 percent of Kern County students are receiving free or reduced-price school meals, an 8 percent increase since 2007.
Exacerbating the problem is the fact that children 17 and younger made up 31 percent of Kern County's population in 2010, making this the seventh-youngest county in the state. Black and Latino children, and those raised by single mothers, are the most likely to be living in poverty, according to the study.
The ramifications are significant for all of Kern County -- and California. The overwhelming poverty stresses local nonprofit health-care clinics and results in more patients who are uninsured. And Kern's low overall level of educational attainment ensures that the jobs that will be available to the poorest of job seekers will be menial and low-paying -- and that the most desirable of potential new employers will most likely look elsewhere.
Solutions are hard to come by, but two would seem obvious.
Teen pregnancy, which is rampant in this part of the Central Valley, perpetuates a cycle of poverty and dysfunction that only deepens these issues. These pregnancies -- and here we're talking about unwanted, unintended pregnancies in girls who have marginal if any support from the baby's father -- put young mothers on courses that make education and gainful employment less likely and prolonged reliance on public assistance more likely. Other cities have made great strides in reducing the problem, usually by changing community attitudes about abstinence and contraceptive education, so improvement is possible.
The other area that demands change revolves around schooling -- the dropout rate most definitely, but also parental involvement in the early grades. That's not a change government can easily direct -- it's change that families, with encouragement from schools and other organizations, must make themselves. Our long-range goal as a community must be to cultivate a local culture that values not only a high school diploma, but advanced scholarly achievement as well.
Poverty is a multifaceted challenge, and the answers can seem daunting -- because they are. But we can accept it as the ever-worsening status quo and do nothing, or we can identify solutions and act. Deep-seated hunger in America's breadbasket is just too great an irony to quietly tolerate.