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New report underscores Kern's struggle with poverty

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A new report by the Brookings Institution, a Washington, D.C.-based private, nonprofit group, says metropolitan Bakersfield had the fourth worst suburban poverty rate in the nation in 2010.

Brookings' ranking was part of a book by authors Elizabeth Kneebone and Alan Berube, "Confronting Suburban Poverty in America," released this month. It found 22.6 percent of residents in suburban Bakersfield had incomes below the poverty line.

By "suburban Bakersfield" the Institution means all of Kern County except the actual city of Bakersfield.

The only other California metropolitan areas that made the list were Fresno, which ranked third with 23.1 percent of residents with incomes below the poverty line; and Stockton, which ranked 10th, with 16.4 percent.

The Institution analyzed data from the 2010 U.S. Census, as well as yearly data from the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. The most recent ACS data available found that in 2011, suburban Bakersfield rose to third place in the same poverty survey, with 26.9 percent of residents having incomes below the poverty line that year.That's exactly where the area ranked 13 years ago, in 2000.

The poverty line varies depending on the number of residents in a family, Berube said. A family of three earning $20,000 or less per year is considered to be below the poverty line; a family of four earning $23,000 or less per year is.

Berube and Kneebone wrote that modern suburban poverty reaches into even the once-predominantly white, middle-class communities created during the 1950s, when cities like Lakewood, Calif., and Levittown, N.Y., were models of suburbia.

"By 2010, one in three Americans was poor or near poor, meaning that 104 million people lived below twice the federal poverty line -- 23 million more than in 2000," the authors wrote. "Without a change in course, poverty is likely to reach deeper into the nation's metropolitan regions, even as it continues to concentrate in distressed inner-city and suburban locales."

In 2010, Berube said the actual city of Bakersfield saw 18.2 percent of residents with incomes below the poverty line. In Arvin, just 15 miles away, that number jumped to 34.9 percent -- the highest in the county. Also in 2010, 34.1 percent of Maricopa residents and 33.8 percent of McFarland residents had incomes below the poverty line.

Berube blamed the Great Recession of the late 2000s, and its lingering effects, for much of the continuing overall rise in poverty rates.

"The economy took a big tumble toward the end of the 2000s, with the housing market crash," he said. "Throughout the Central Valley, housing-price declines were high, foreclosures were high, and that had its strongest effects in communities outside those core cities."

Directors of Bakersfield-area agencies that serve the poor agree with his findings.

"We did see an increase over the past few years with the decline of the economy and such. With everything I've seen, it's held steady," said Mark Corum, outreach manager for Community Action Partnership of Kern (CAPK), whose food bank serves the entire county.

Corum said the CAPK food bank distributed 8.1 million pounds of emergency food in 2011 -- nearly double the 4.4 million pounds it distributed just two years earlier.

"Why is this happening? We're the ag capital of the world. Why are people going hungry?" Corum asked, characterizing this recession as having been worse, and recovery slower. "There's a lot of people out of work, maybe a lot of people working, but when they got laid off, now they're working entry-level jobs. I think it's just going to take time to recover."

Berube links high poverty rates in Kern County more directly to historically low-paying jobs in agriculture.

"I think it's more related to agriculture and the fact that many people working in agriculture are working seasonally, they're earning low wages, they may be earning below the poverty line," Berube said, adding that one solution may be to create jobs in better-paying industries.

"I think that a lot of California's, and the nation's, human capital and high-tech businesses have been clustered in Los Angeles, San Diego, the Silicon Valley. Midsize places like Bakersfield, that are in the shadow of those communities, have struggled to find an economic footing and create high-paying jobs that lift people out of poverty," Berube said, noting that Kern County does offer well-paying jobs in oil and agriculture, its two main industries.

Higher-paying jobs in other industries could find a large labor pool among seasonal agricultural workers, said Rick Deckard of Kirschenman Enterprises of Bakersfield, whose crops range from almonds to watermelon.

"We still have a large number of agricultural people down at the low end of the wage scale, and that's never going to change," said Deckard, who is Kirschenman's manager of permanent crops. "If you had another industry come in, you could get some good, qualified people."

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