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ANNA SMITH: Shifting the focus from surviving to thriving

With two young children, I often think of long-term strategies for improving our city and region, which will forever define our boys since it is now their hometown, too.

How will our kids’ ability to carve out a successful future be helped or hurt by the place in which they grew up? I wonder what their perception of Bakersfield will be when they are older, and if they move away at some point, whether there will be job opportunities here for them to return. More broadly, I think often about young people with less economic opportunity in our city and how being born in this community impacts their future.

To what extent are children’s opportunities for upward economic mobility shaped by the neighborhoods in which they are raised? This is the question that Harvard economists Raj Chetty and Nathaniel Hendren posed in their study, the Equality of Opportunity Project. Chetty and Hendren show that the area in which children grow up has significant effects on their prospects for upward mobility.

“The broader lesson of our analysis,” Chetty and Hendren write, “is that social mobility should be tackled at a local level.”

The data coming out of our own community is not that encouraging. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, almost 14 percent of adults in Kern County lack the basic literacy skills necessary to perform daily job functions. A significant share — 15 percent — of county adults have not attained ninth-grade literacy level. And 20 percent of Kern County adults over 25 years old do not have a high school diploma, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's 2013-2017 American Community Survey-5 Year Estimates.

Of course, these statistics tell only a portion of the story. I have written about encouraging creative efforts in our region to improve the outlook for children often left behind: David Franz’s work with the Shafter Learning Partnership, Grimmway Academy’s rural charter school model and Bitwise Industries’ expansion here with plans to offer software coding classes to children and adults from a range of socioeconomic statuses.

According to a report in the New York Times on economic mobility, “Location matters — enormously.” The Times noted that Chetty and Hendron found five factors associated with strong upward mobility: less segregation by income and race, lower levels of income inequality, better schools, lower rates of violent crime and a larger share of two-parent households. In general, the effects of place are sharper for boys than for girls, and for lower-income children than for the affluent.

This polarization is disheartening, with certain cities and neighborhoods seeing a much stronger economic outlook and overall better social mobility for residents. Stark conditions in other communities frustrate residents’ efforts to secure a more optimistic future. Under these circumstances, we need to adopt a more unified and active approach to assessing, evaluating and identifying the most efficient means of improving our community for everyone.

This is the exact message driving a collaborative new effort in Fresno.

The Fresno D.R.I.V.E. Initiative (which stands for “Developing the Region’s Inclusive and Vibrant Economy”) is a 10-year community investment plan drafted with input from a 300-person committee representing over 150 organizations in Fresno. The initiative was launched late last year and asks: "What would it take to fundamentally transform the Greater Fresno Region by 2030 and create opportunities for all residents to achieve real economic mobility by fostering an economy that is inclusive, vibrant and sustainable?"

According DRIVE founders, this coalition undertook a four-month, intensive process to “assess baseline data on Fresno’s economy, human capital and neighborhood quality, align on a 10-year aspirational vision for inclusive economic development, identify the key actions and investments needed to achieve the 10-year vision, and determine the community impact of those investments.”

Like Fresno, Bakersfield is currently one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States with 20 percent population growth since 2000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Our city is the second-largest city in California’s Central Valley. It commands the focus of an economically expanding region.

Last year, responding to this polarization and population growth in left-behind areas like Fresno and Bakersfield, Governor Newsom’s office announced a new “Regions Rise Together” initiative designed to develop a comprehensive economic plan that will benefit all parts of California, specifically the inland regions.

“We believe in a California for all. The state’s extraordinary prosperity and opportunity must be available to everyone,” stated Lenny Mendonca, chief economic and business adviser and director of the California Office of Business and Economic Development, and Kate Gordon, senior advisor to the governor on climate and director of the Governor’s Office of Planning and Research. “For workers, geography should not limit your opportunity to secure a living wage job with predictable hours and pathways to acquire the necessary skills to advance in a well-paid career in a growing industry.”

The Fresno DRIVE Initiative is capitalizing on this statewide momentum at a pivotal time, with a diverse group of community and business leaders who represent the region’s brightest ideas and the heart of the Central Valley.

I would urge Bakersfield leaders to consider a similar initiative for our community. The first step in protecting our economic future is to develop a plan forward. Our children’s future depends on it.

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Find more information at fresnodrive.org.

Anna Smith writes a weekly column about Bakersfield. She can be reached at anna@sagebakersfield.com. The views expressed here are her own.

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