Common Place   /   June 16, 2014

California's Flyover Country

Stephen Assink

San Joaquin Valley, photo: Steven Garber

San Francisco and Los Angeles are the famous faces of California. The San Joaquin Valley, inland and between these two sprawling metro regions, is mostly unknown. On a satellite image, the Valley is the big, flat, green stretch in the middle of the state. By population, it is about the size of Oregon. Yet if you pick up a California guidebook, major newspaper, or state politician’s schedule, the Valley hardly appears. It is California’s flyover country.

San Joaquin Valley, photo: Steven Garber

While the Silicon Valley was becoming Silicon Valley and Hollywood was becoming Hollywood, the San Joaquin Valley was becoming the most productive agricultural region in the world. Clearly, this is not the kind of achievement that brings a region fame these days. Indeed, it has been a pretty bad time in American history to be good at farming. The Valley is now one of the poorest and its residents some of the most poorly educated, scoring near Appalachia and the deep south on most human development indices. The Valley has half the college graduates per capita that the rest of California has. The gap has been widening. A somber August 1, 2013, article in The Economist, “Down on the Farms," moved through the region’s many challenges before trying to end on an (almost as damning) hopeful note. “The valley is unlikely ever to enjoy the wealth of its coastal cousins. But... it may be able to offer its children a brighter future than their parents had.”

From the Dust Bowl refugees dramatized by The Grapes of Wrath to the Latino farm workers made famous by César Chávez’s organizing efforts, the Valley has long been a place where the ambitious and hard working can get a start. But those rare public glimpses of the region can make poverty appear more of a historical constant than it has been. In 1951, Life ran a story marveling at the wealth of “shirt-sleeve millionaires,” entrepreneurial Valley farmers (some of them children of the Dust Bowl) who were applying new agricultural technology to this ancient silt-bed and producing record yields. In the mid-twentieth century, the communities that grew up around these farms were as prosperous as the rest of the state, with similar home values, incomes, and education levels. Economist Enrico Morreti’s book The New Geography of Jobs, which explores the connections between place and economic prospects, begins by noting how economically similar the Bay Area and the San Joaquin Valley were in the 1960s.

Orchard in the San Joaquin Valley; photo: Sasha Saldana

Economic geography has shifted since. There is some disagreement about how and why, but it is clear that education is central to the story.

Urban studies theorist Richard Florida explains that some cities are now consumption magnets to those whose tastes have been shaped by the cosmopolitan, bohemian, sub-cultures of universities. Tolerant, progressive cities rich in the arts, organic markets, and historic buildings are simply more attractive to highly educated, high-income consumers who have choices about where to live.

Enrico Moretti and others counter that causation goes the other way. It is production that matters most. People in the most highly-compensated sectors of the economy increasingly work with ideas. Ideas improve most quickly face-to-face. Clusters of talented people attract and create businesses and generate the disposable income to support the restaurants, architecture, and events that make a place appealing.

I take an interest in these things as a partisan. I returned home to the Valley. I love this place and have high hopes for it, knowing that we are very much underdogs. To me,  the theoretical differences of Florida and Moretti are less important than the fact that both the consumer and producer forces they describe are working relentlessly against us.

A few hard truths are unavoidable for a Valley partisan like me.  First, failure to produce or attract an educated workforce will cripple a region’s economic development efforts. Second, places with low education levels are at a severe disadvantage in attracting talent from the outside (as both Florida and Moretti show). Third, this leaves us with the underdog’s bittersweet dividend of clarity. There is no option but to invest in the education of our children.

In other words, the much-lamented “brain drain” is not the problem here. It’s true that some of our graduates leave and never return. But, worrying about the top students who leave distracts from the more fundamental problem that there are far too few top students to begin with. Children in the coastal areas are about 50 percent more likely to be reading at grade level in the third grade. By high school, coastal students are almost twice as likely to take the SAT and those who take it are twice as likely to score above the fiftieth percentile. Coastal areas produce almost five times as many top Advanced Placement test scores per high school senior as the Valley. Not surprisingly, local colleges have high remediation and low graduation rates. The main state universities (in Fresno and Bakersfield) graduate less than 20 percent of their students in four years and only half in six years. Underdeveloped potential hurts much more than any kind of brain drain.

Communities in the Valley and places like it, can ill-afford to leave education at the margins of economic and community development efforts. It should be central. In a future post, I’ll write about how one small town is responding to this challenge—without the help of the state or major philanthropists—and, increasingly, finding success.

David Franz is Director of the Shafter Education Partnership at the City of Shafter and a former Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.