deletedSep 21, 2022·edited Sep 21, 2022
Comment deleted
Expand full comment

there are pockets of normalcy. i lived in davis for 5 years, and it's fine. the suburbs to the east of sacramento, in the foothills, are OK too. i would say the southern half is more bleak than the northern half, though places like redding and red bluff aren't exactly 'lux'

Expand full comment

One theory I came up with on this subject a number of years ago is that the Central Valley is too close to California's paradisiacal coast to hang on to local talent. My example was George Lucas of Modesto, CA (as seen in his "American Graffiti") who decamped for Marin County a long time ago. The Marin County landscape is enough like home that you wouldn't be homesick because you had imprinted on the Modesto landscape as a youth, but the Marin landscape is just objectively better.

Expand full comment

It is horrible. It’s been horrible since at least 1996 when I got trapped here by my spouse’s job. We were going to stay two years tops and go back East. (Long boring story about what went wrong.) The only things you could say for it back then were “Well, the produce is good” and “Houses are affordable, sort of.”

Now the house prices in our neighborhood have doubled in the 4 years since we bought this home, and there’s no way we could now, if we moved here today, ever buy a home in this hellhole.

Who on earth is coming here and why?

“the problem is more that everyone in the Central Valley wants to leave.”

Yes. Every interesting or smart critical thinker I’ve ever met here, everyone who gives even the slightest shit about museums and theatre and music and culture (with the exception of a few people who were born and raised here, so “it’s home”) has been desperate to leave. I’ve met a lot of nice people here over the years. They become close friends and they always leave the state. I’m counting down till I can leave too.

“It’s an acquired taste” indeed. Like drinking antifreeze.

Not that I’m bitter. Antifreeze is delightfully sweet.

Expand full comment

My vague impression is that California agriculture tends toward the plantation variety with a few big landowners and a lot of poor laborers, often migrants. California crops tend to be more labor intensive than Midwestern crops so there is a big push to bring in cheap labor.

In contrast, a better sort of rural area like Sioux County, Iowa has a higher percentage of owner-operator farmers. The downside of ultra-mechanized Midwestern grain farming is you don't need many people at all, so many counties are gradually depopulating. On the other hand, the quality of the remaining farmers is growing (the farmer usually leaves his farm to his most productive child). I was looking at the kind of education that Midwestern farmers tend to have lately, and it's impressive: often an undergrad STEM major in agriculture and then an MBA-like business degree. The intellectual demands of being a farmer these days seem pretty similar to being a corporate vice president.

Expand full comment

Pollution is a bigger deal for agriculture than for urban industries. It's a very serious issue in Central Valley. Contaminated water reduces the water supply already in drought conditions. I believe most of the crops grown in Central Valley are water and fertilizer intensive as well which creates more pollution. These inputs have also been going up in price squeezing agricultural profits (which have been bad for a while now anyway).

To make matters worse California has responded in its California way. Lots of bureaucracy and blaming farmers and unfunded mandates that have driven people out of business. Most major agricultural states are red to purple and so farmers have political power. The other big exception is Illinois but Chicago doesn't dominate the state the way the various coastal cities do in California. So in a real sense I think the issue is a lack of political power among farmers. (Which has the advantage of co-varying at a glance: California's deep blue turn and the 1990s decline happen around the same time.)

Other states have overcome the challenges of hard to automate agriculture or large influxes of immigrants or pollution/water issues. Florida, for example. Though Florida has powerful farmers who, among other things, advocate for anti-pollution measures and measures meant to shore up the water supply. California just doesn't have a political economy that cares about the countryside.

Unsurprisingly this leads to weak policy. I remember hearing one California official saying her primary priority in the area was to address race and gender gaps in farming. Which is an actual issue but isn't going to do much for the people already there. And it's fairly easy to understand why she made that choice. This woman has a much brighter future in politics if she can burnish her anti-racist/feminist credentials than if she delivers for a bunch of Republican voters.

Expand full comment

I highly recommend reading Victor Davis Hanson's books for more on this topic!

Expand full comment

Any info on land ownership in the Central Valley and whether patterns of land ownership have changed over time? Just wondering if Georgists have any insights here.

Expand full comment

If you took the most rural part of *any* state (or perhaps the poorest region of any state), wouldn't it almost always be poorer than Mississippi? That's what I'd expect if (say) rural areas are generally poorer than urban parts (at least in nominal terms—the cost of living may also be lower).

Expand full comment

Every time I've been to Visalia and at least half the times I've been to Fresno the town has absolutely reeked of cow shit. Like hitting a wall of smell. I guess you get used to it. But when you leave for a while and come back it has to be a jarring experience.

Expand full comment

Not sure how to verify it, but the local narrative is that increased border security meant that workers couldn't transition back and forth turning into a persistent underclass rather than a migratory labor supply.

Expand full comment

So, just to clarify, we're talking about the "southern" central valley. Sacramento, Tracy, Merced, they're all a different animal, lots of tech commuters n' such.

The story I've always heard is that a lot of farmland in the Central valley should never have been settled. It's scrubland, prairie dog country. And you can actually see this, drive down the I-5 from SF to LA and there's the invisible line south of Coalinga where the farmland stops and it's just dry grass and a couple shrubs. Now there are some areas, like the Salinas valley, which are just naturally great, but most of the Central valley isn't naturally farmland and required tons of water to make into halfway passable farmland. And now that water is tight, you've got a lot of local agriculture fighting to survive.

Expand full comment

We ended up here in Sacramento 13 years ago when my wife started her PhD at Davis. First two years were a bit of a drag but we fell in love with the city and decided to stay. The smog half of the year can be a drag but spring in Sacramento is absolutely gorgeous.

Expand full comment

I am also reminded of season 3 of Goliath, which dealt with water rights in the Central Valley and the almond farms hoarding all the water. Not sure how accurate a reflection of the actual situation it was, but I do feel guilty now whenever I drink almond milk.

Expand full comment

Due to the Grapes of Wrath-era Scots-Irish migration, Bakersfield, CA used to be one of the capitals of country music, home to the rock-influenced Bakersfield Sound of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard. Bakersfield in the 1960s was much like Austin in the 1970s, home to a harder edged alternative to Nashville.

Here's a Rolling Stones country song about Bakersfield, The Girl with the Faraway Eyes.


Expand full comment

Keep in mind that some of the commuting from CV>BA is not going all the way to SF. People live in Stockton and commute to Concord, or live in Tracy and commute to Livermore. You're still saving 300k on a house.

Expand full comment

> This is a weird article. It seems to confirm that things used to be better - nobody would call the Central Valley “the good life” now. But its concerns are smog, sprawl, and decreasing share of agriculture. These seem like the problems of somewhere that’s growing - local NIMBYs complaining that too many people want to move in. Today the problem is more that everyone in the Central Valley wants to leave.

> Sometimes well-off residents of California coastal cities get houses in the Central Valley and commute. It’s about 2 hours from LA to Bakersfield, or 1.5 from Stockton to San Francisco, so it’s not worth it for most people. But Central Valley houses cost between 25% and 50% the cost of coastal houses, so I guess it’s worth it for some. I don’t know whether this is good (because these people bring money in and create jobs) or bad (because these people bid up land values).

Your two assumptions here- that it's the rich buying second houses and commuting, and that this isn't a significant number of people- are wrong.

Anecdotally, I live in the South Bay and have spoken with multiple random workers who have multiple hour commutes from the Central Valley. I can't find statistics on this, but this more-or-less matches what I'd expect- the people getting pushed out of the Bay Area due to housing prices are the poorest, not the richest.

Regarding the sheer number of commuters, here's an article: https://extras.mercurynews.com/megaregion/

The article calculates that ~130,000 workers commute from the Central Valley into the Bay Area. If the average family has 4 people, one of whom commutes to the Bay Area, that's 500,000 people who have been pushed out the Bay Area. The Central Valley has a population of 6.5 million; if you exclude the 2 million who live around Sacramento (the state capital, an exception as you discuss in the article), over 10% of the Central Valley's families have somebody commuting to the Bay Area. I know much less about LA, and couldn't find good stats from google, but if it's similar then that's ~20% of the entire population of the Central Valley who live there in large part because lack of housing pushed them out of the coastal cities.

Expand full comment

If random people say it uses to be better when they were young, but the data says it was always bad, isn't the obvious answer that people have rose colored glasses?

Also, as an aside, crime is down there from the 90s just like it's down everywhere else in the country from the 90s.

Expand full comment

>I always think of Mississippi as bad because of a history of racial violence, racial segregation, and getting burned down during the Civil War.

This sounds disingenuous, but perhaps our host is merely the victim of a California public education.

Agriculture isn't a great business in a developed country. Why fertile Mississippi isn't doing better than the relatively dry Central Valley seems a better question, but no surprise neither are thriving. Ag ain't the future and never was.

Still another way to frame this might be: Why Is The Central Valley So Successful? People *migrate* there for work and find better lives. Not so for the Midwest or Mississippi.

Expand full comment

I grew up in the valley from birth until I left for college in 2009. A couple of things that I remember looking back at that time:

1. The 2009 housing bust hit HARD. Like, really hard. Housing prices skyrocketed in the couple years before and then in what seemed like overnight prices tanked and everyone lost their jobs. I recall hearing about cities like Stockton pushing a 25%+ unemployment rate. There were already crime and drug problems in cities like Stockton, Modesto, and Fresno, and that made everything worse.

2. There's very little to do, and you have to drive a long ways to do it. Outside of Sacramento and perhaps a couple of pockets elsewhere if I'm being generous, there's nowhere in the valley where you can, say, walk around and enjoy a day in the city and do things. I remember that parts of downtown Modesto and Fresno, at least back in ~2008, were literally shut down after dusk because of crime. Even then those fairly large cities are built like massive suburbs.

3. Water. I think this is the big one. The valley is only agricultural because of a large canal network. And for a long time (not sure how it is now), farmers got incredible water subsidies, partially rationed, which they were not allowed to sell. When I was growing up, one of the most common ways of irrigation I'd see was literally flooding orchards because farmers had so much water that if they didn't use, they lost. So they'd use it on the least efficient method of irrigation possible. I think that's changed a bit in the last decade, but only in response to very severe drought. I believe to some extent some farmers are now being subsidized not to grow crops at all to save on water. When that's the backbone of your economy you're in trouble. (Growing up I heard that I lived in the "breadbasket of America" frequently. I wonder what they're telling kids now.)

Also, your categorization of the region as being a strategic location by which you can escape is spot on. People would talk about how great it is that you can reach SF, Monterey, Yosemite, or Tahoe for a day trip quite frequently.

Expand full comment

A couple of thoughts courtesy of someone who's never been there and should probably go to sleep instead of typing this:

You mention how people want to leave, but also the problems are problems of growth. I wonder if what this is, is replacing farming with being exurbs of the big cities; and the people who want to leave are the old farm people (and people who grow up there but don't want to stay), more than made up for by the people moving there chasing cheap housing and because they're immigrating to the US.

Matt Yglesias had a thing on his blog today that said this:

"The unintended legacy of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was that illicit seasonal labor migration was largely replaced by one-off permanent migration, while the three- and 10-year bans made it harder than ever for permanent unauthorized residents to regularize their status without meaningfully deterring illegal entry. "

So maybe this means fewer migrant farm workers leaving in the offseason, more staying in the central valley full-time.

Also since Matt Yglesias is always going on about how underrated an issue air pollution is - I wonder if that is causing a lot of the issues (and I'm guessing caused by a combo of population growth, and geography that's conducive to the air pollution hanging around).

Also the water situation seems fucked up in a way that more population must exacerbate.

Also Kansas is 12.7% Hispanic, compared to 17% nationwide. Dodge City is 57% Hispanic.

You mention progressive legislation as a potential issue, so in the interest of defending my tribe while being too tired/lazy to write anything more thought out, I'll also mention federal rules that make it harder to employ people who are immigrants or homeless or whatever (like those IRS forms you have to fill out when you start a job with your ID and all that). Also everything I hear always makes it sound like these farms are really exploitative towards the workers. The recent (wrongly decided) Supreme Court case about how a law letting union organizers onto farms is an unconstitutional taking comes to mind.

Expand full comment

Regarding the plot at the beginning of IV (Per Capita Income Compared to California) you write:

> Here it looks like things got worse from 1975 - 1985, then have been basically stable since.

In 1985, the range is approx 65%-80%. Today the range is approx 60%-72%. The decline since 1975 almost as large as the initial drop.

If by ”stable” you mean a slow steady decline, you should say that explicitly, because in context ”stable” sounds like ”stopped getting worse.” If, on the other hand, by ”stable” you do mean ”stopped getting worse” then this is objectively wrong.

Expand full comment

This is an intriguing article for someone like me, who lives in Central Europe. A few years ago, I went to an academic conference in L.A., and afterwards flew to SF for some sightseeing. Rented a car there, and drove back to L.A. for the plane home. The intent of driving back was to see some touristy places on the way which are only car-reachable, like Sequoia.

This obviously took us along parts of Central Valley, which was a fairly unsettling experience. To Europeans, U.S. cities are somewhat disconcerting to begin with, what with the large numbers of visible homeless, and the acutely mentally ill who roam the streets, apparently untreated (these demographics of course overlap). But Central Valley was even worse: the entire region radiated an aura of poverty, neglect and despair that you don't even find in the really bad parts of Eastern Europe.

For years, I put down the impression I got back then down to bad sampling: I figured we must just have had the bad luck to stumble into the bad parts, and missed the good ones. Seems like I was wrong about that.

Expand full comment

I suspect (note that this is largely uninformed speculation on my part) that there are two largely unrelated issues going on here that shouldn't really be lumped together. The Central Valley's population consists of:

1.) Predominantly immigrant communities centered around the agriculture industry.

2.) Generic, predominantly white, suburban communities that aren't especially different from other suburbs you'd find in, say, the Midwest.

The immigrant communities are largely poor, but as far as I'm aware they have always been poor (see Cesar Chavez, etc.) and given the economic data presented I don't see much of a reason to imagine that things have gotten dramatically worse in the past 10 years or so. Meanwhile the suburbs are declining and dealing with issues like downward mobility, brain drain, drugs, etc., but these issues are hardly unique to the Central Valley.

These two groups are largely segregated from each other and their problems are very different--the discrepancy between the narratives of decline and the economic data come from the fact that the immigrant group forms the majority of the Central Valley's population and are thus primarily what the statistics reflect, while the suburban group is the one that produces most of the accounts about the region's decline that most of readers of this blog would hear about. In reality there are two populations there are two populations that are not very alike outside of sharing a space, one of which is growing as normal (but which has always been very poor) and one of which was wealthier and is declining is declining (but forms a minority of the region's population). The growing sense of something being wrong in the Central Valley is a combination of typical declinism from the suburban group and increasing media attention towards the poverty of an immigrant group that was previously less visible due to marginalization.

Expand full comment
Sep 21, 2022·edited Sep 22, 2022

Victor Davis Hanson has written many times about this, from the perspective of someone whose family has farmed in the Central Valley for generations.

In a general way, my vague feeling is that it's probably the dark side of the explosion of huge tech money in the Bay Area in the 90s, which utterly changed the Bay Area itself[1], and led to substantial revision in the priorities of the California Legislature -- which have been since reflected in all kinds of infrastructure neglect that strongly affects Central Valley business -- water and power distribution being most obvious, but also including transportation -- as well as state-level priority setting that gets approving nods from $400k/year Google engineers and is utterly flabbergasting for schmos growing raisins in Fresno[2], like it's a broadcast from Mars. It's a shame the Bay Area can't be split off into a sort of Hong Kong, it's own little city-state, and then the Central Valley could pursue its own best interests. Doesn't mean the two areas can't do mutually profitable business with each other, but they should not be making rules for each other, the cultural and lifestyle gulf is too large.


[1] I lived in Oakland in the 80s, and the contrast between then and now is staggering.

[2] I mean, only electric cars can be sold in 2035? This is frankly delusional with respect to Central Valley denizens, and to the extent actually implemented will screw them over economically.

Expand full comment


The weather isn't that bad by most standards. Notice the graphs there showing how it's never muggy. I think "often reach 110°F (43°C) in the summer" is clearly an exaggeration, perhaps influenced by the recent heat wave.

Also, some areas are rather nice. Yuba City, Chico. There are nice neighborhoods and sometimes fantastic natural areas within a reasonable drive.

Expand full comment

https://youtu.be/-7pJIHyIre8 Here’s VDH describing the changes in the Valley.

Expand full comment

Why is an agricultural region so polluted? And when did it start to be bad? Imho it could be an important part of the story; at least in my country, middle class people are moving away from most polluted region

Expand full comment

I dunno man, it sounds like the conservative realtor was pretty much correct? Other than the air pollution angle this article seems to be just confirming what he was saying with data and more historical tidbits. I'm from and live very far from California, but to re-cap the story both data+news+realtor are saying:

- In the old days the central valley was rural but nice enough.

- Mexican workers came, worked temporarily, went home again.

- At some point in the 80s/early 90s, some party (presumably the left?) got in and decided to give lots of those people citizenship and thus welfare rights without thinking about how anyone would pay for that. Probably on the belief that Mexican immigrants would then become reliable voters for the party that most supported welfare.

- Combination of events+tech change led to reduced employment needs, simultaneous with increased unskilled workforce size. This would also create a massive influx of a foreign culture that reduces demand for production of local culture. Result: suppressed wages, subsequent poverty, and not much culture.

- Newly minted citizens do indeed vote reliably for the left, flipping the state permanently and ensuring the government can now pass lots of policies hostile to agriculture, which they see as "devastating the environment" and not food production, making the poverty situation worse.

Seems that the root cause here is being painted quite consistently: once the left took control of California they did a series of things that shored up their own power but sacrificed the Central Valley along the way?

Expand full comment

California has a $14 (for small businesses) minimum wage whereas Mississippi just has the federal minimum wage of $7.25. It's hard to imagine that agriculture is twice as productive in California's central valley with it's relatively dry climate. I think this is enough to explain the poverty? People just aren't allowed to work? If there were no minimum wage, then a dollar would naturally be worth more in a rural town than in a high-productivity region like San Francisco. Wages are naturally lower in rural areas because they're not as productive but it's okay because everything else is cheaper as well. The minimum wage totally disrupts this. Employers are forbidden from paying the natural wage so everything involving service gets artificially expensive and people get unemployed because many jobs are just not allowed to exist.

Expand full comment

If you want a framework to think about this problem, and similar ones, I can recommend the book "How The World Became Rich" by Mark Koyama and Jared Rubin.

This book is a survey of current thinking about economic growth and how it happened. There are several major strands of thought: geography, politics/institutions, culture, demography, and colonialism. We could apply these lenses to the Central Valley:-

Geography: the Central Valley doesn't have a major navigable river running through it, so it's never going to benefit from trade. It's also close to major trading centres, for which it will act as a hinterland, a source of workers and resources. It would always have struggled to develop as a major centre of activity in its own right. It's pretty much stuck with agriculture.

Culture: people in the valley come from low trust cultures (both the Latin cultures, and the Anglo Western USA culture). This means that they would not naturally band together to try to improve their lot (by political agitation directed at the state and federal governments, or directly, by building things themselves). If things get bad, they can't cooperate to fix them.

Demography: Throughout its history since Anglos got there, California has depended on working age immigrants to a greater degree than almost anywhere else in the world. This means it could get away with being woefully undersupplied with the capital needed to bring up families and integrate young people into the work force. It is.

(You probably disagree. But do a thought experiment: what would need to change to successfully, continuously, integrate the children of the Central Valley fully into the economies of L. A. or S. F. from now on?)

Politics/Institutions: These are dominated by socioeconomic elites. In highly unequal societies institutions are set up in ways to disadvantage the already poor, for example by having few, inaccessible, and badly resourced offices. Low trust societies tend to have corrupt governments (that operate on personal connections), which further disadvantages those not politically connected, who don't believe that government would mitigate their problems anyway.

Colonialism: seasonal migrants were merely a resource to be exploited, not part of local society. Cultural attitudes like this take multiple generations to change, once established.

Expand full comment
Sep 21, 2022·edited Sep 21, 2022

"Median income" can mean different things that often get confused. When you see figure in the $25-40k range in the US, it typically means median personal income for everyone over the age of 16. This includes students, retirees, homemakers, people on disability, part-time workers, etc., so the value is typically about 2/3 of the median earnings for full-time workers, and half of the median household income, and should not be (but very frequently is) confused with either of these.

Note that this is not median household income divided by the number of adults in the median household. It's based on asking people over the age of 16 how much money they personally make, as individuals.

Per capita income, on the other hand, is total personal income divided by population. So if people have a lot of children, that's going to drag the average down.

Expand full comment

Gotta love the "(UTC Time)" on the Fresno housing price plot, as if seven or eight hours on that scale weren't less than 1/40 of a pixel.

Expand full comment

“ Although immigrants don’t usually lower wages”

The evidence is against that. There’s a negative elasticity between immigration and wages, particularly for low skilled immigration and lower wages.

Expand full comment

How has the total population of the region has evolved over years? If I understand the post and comments correctly, it seems like any Central Valley resident with any ambition and means leaves for the big cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles, but those urban regions are so sprawling that they grow into the Central Valley itself (which could mean that those counties get the costs of serving suburbanites without any of economic activity, and thus tax revenue, of those residents). Also, the Central Valley does have some decent and not declining urban centers like Sacramento or Davis, but they are generally concentrated in the North, which is doing better generally than the South.

Is this right, or have I missed something?

Expand full comment

1. "There are people in every time and every land who want to stop history in its tracks. They fear the future, mistrust the present, and invoke the security of a comfortable past which, in fact, never existed." RFK

The idea that some 40 year old has any objective notion of actual history is laughable. Would you rather your child be born in the 1900, 1930, 1960, 1990, 2020? The objective answer is 2020.

2. Read the first 2 pages of Henry George's Progress and Poverty (1879). It is the same question: why amidst technological advances is there still poverty?

Every few years it's time to pull out Candide, ou l'Optimisme for a reread.

Expand full comment

I lived in Davis for about 6 years when I did my phd, and loved it. I think you can get to Tahoe in closer to 90 minutes. You have nothing but sun for 9 months of the year. Summers are too hot, but it's at least low humidity heat, and it often cools down substantially at night and in the mornings -- unlike in the midwest. Winters are mild, and by March 15th you have sunny, 60-70 degree weather. Wine country is right there. Also 90 minutes to San Francisco. Seemingly lots of things to see and do. I remember reading how polluted the air is, but I mostly didn't notice it myself.

That said, Davis is an oasis b/c of the UC there. I remember driving through nearby small towns with visible signs of poverty that looked approximately 100% hispanic. I have never been to Merced but I've also heard bad things.

Expand full comment
Sep 21, 2022·edited Sep 21, 2022

I was in high school from 1990-1993 in the area and it was bad back then. I was in small towns -- Reedley, Hanford, Lemoore. We only lived in Hanford for a few weeks before moving; the town water smelled like rotten eggs and we couldn't handle it.

We never went to Fresno even though everyone had cars because we were all scared of being shot there. The only people with "good" jobs were stationed at the Lemoore Naval Air Station. Which was the destination when the US shut down bases in the Philippines, so Lemoore High had the weird demographic of being like 30% Filipino; I was the only non-Filipino on the high school tennis team my senior year.

It was hot back then. I remember a 30 day stretch of over 100. We checked the PBS station in the mornings to see if school was going to be delayed due to fog or not. Driving outside of the town meant among the farms and ranches you hit so many bugs you had to hose off your windshield once a week or so.

There wasn't a movie theatre in Lemoore, in retrospect I don't remember any of us ever going to see a movie, which would have required driving to the next town over. Even though we all had cars, we never really left town because outside was just giant farms for miles in every direction.

Even though my school had honors classes and plenty of smart kids there was also just a general lack of vision about what to do in life. The school valedictorian went on to attend community college.

So I'm not really buying any real golden age there.

Expand full comment

Your one line about immigrants not lowering wages unless agriculture is the only industry really cleared up why my personal experience never matched the data on immigration. I grew up in an area where everyone was in either agriculture or construction, and it seemed clear that immigrants were lowering the wages of both. I'm glad there's an explanation that doesn't conflict with the data.

Expand full comment

California has regulated itself into oblivion, has an unfunded pension mandate that is going to break the state and has done really weird things with water and other resource management that has destroyed it. The rich people who live in the bay area and LA look out over the vast wasteland of the central valley and are dumbfounded by what's wrong with it. California is a microcosm of what the entire US will look like in 50 years. Like a south American country with super rich gated communities with box cities surrounding them.

Expand full comment

The timing makes perfect sense to me if wages were dropping between the 70s and 80s and the place crashed in the 90s.

Think about it in terms of generations and generational wealth. If a middle-class family in the early 1980s already had a house and some established wealth (not a lot, necessarily), they can better weather changes in wages and front line economic conditions. Also, when an economy starts to hurt, it's usually the lowest paid and least skilled workers who take the initial hit. In this case, my guess would be that far fewer young people were hired, rather than large scale layoffs of existing workers.

Either way, those people already living there and doing okay continued to be mostly okay, but it drained the prospects of future generations. People at the top of their earning potential in the 1980s will be retiring in the 90s, but because of the change in economic conditions, fewer people are moving up to fill their places. This hurts the overall economy, as there is less money available to buy things from local stores or whatever. The chain effect becomes a spiral and will continue to get worse unless/until something big comes to the Valley to reverse the trend. With tough state regulations and very little incentive to pick the Valley over other parts of California, that seems pretty unlikely.

This is the same pattern that's played out in many parts of the Northeast and the Rust Belt. Old industries shut down, and as the existing money-holders die or move away, the economy sinks over time. Towns don't usually die right after a big manufacturing plant shuts down (unless it's the only major employer or something similar), but a plant shutting down can spell long term doom due to the knock-on effects later.

Expand full comment

Sarah Mock’s book “Farm and other F words” on agricultural business practices feels relevant here. Inefficiency abounds with high capital costs preventing new entries in the market. Everything relies on artificially low labor price, which keeps the farm workers poor. Farming in the USA is generally myopic and pessimal, and I don’t think the Central Valley is worse than most other places. It’s just closer.

Expand full comment

Someone shoulda ast Joan Didion, herself a Central Valley native.

Expand full comment
Sep 21, 2022·edited Sep 21, 2022

This is really a side issue, but it's the only thing in this post I'm qualified to talk about.

The 1999 LA Times article said, "First-rate culture is scarce. The state capital doesn’t even have a symphony."

That was true then. The Sacramento Symphony had crashed financially and disbanded. But it soon reformed as the Sacramento Philharmonic (new organization, most of the same musicians) and still exists, despite their beloved music director dying unexpectedly a couple years ago. First concert of the season is a month from now: they're playing a violin concerto by Wynton Marsalis, isn't that an interesting notion.

But the same thing - orchestra disbands, later reformed - has happened in Oakland, in San Jose, and in San Diego, as well as in a lot of other cities around the country (Denver, New Orleans ...)

Also I should add that Stockton, Modesto, and Fresno all have professional symphony orchestras which prosper fairly well. Maybe other cities in the Central Valley do as well (I know there's one that splits its season between Redding and Chico), but I mention those because I've been to concerts by all three some time in the last decade (they were playing programs so interesting I couldn't resist taking the drive out), and they all did credit to themselves.

Expand full comment

I think there's a story here the data aren't telling. Give me Fresno over San Francisco any day.

[Me: I'm an environmental consultant (in a niche part of the field) who lived in Davis, then SF for 12 years until 2016. I still work exclusively with clients in California, including a lot of work in Fresno.]

Here's a story that will seem silly to anyone from outside SF but I can't forget it. In 2019 a Fresno client took me to lunch at a strip mall restaurant, and HE LEFT HIS LAPTOP BAG ON THE FRONT SEAT OF THE CAR. It was there when we got back. San Franciscans: Can you imagine such a thing? (In SF, the 4th time my car got broken into the only thing left worth stealing was the jack. So that was taken.)

That same day, the client drove me to see what he considered desperate poverty: a neighborhood in the shadows of an agricultural feed mill. It was smelly and industrial, the houses were small and older, BUT THE PEOPLE WERE LIVING IN HOUSES. I kept waiting for the kind of brutal conditions you see on every street in San Francisco--there is some of that in Fresno, but nothing like CA's coastal cities.

Then we went to a school where we were doing a project. Across the street from the school, a house was for sale. It was small, probably 1000 sq ft, on about 1/8 acre. But it, and its street mates, were well-maintained--lawns were mowed, houses painted. The price? $78,000.

Compare the opioid overdose rate between SF and Fresno Counties: 44 vs 7.

Possibly, what seems like poverty that is "humbling and a little scary" to rich coastal front-rowers, is a relatively pleasant middle class lifestyle to a Mexican immigrant earning 10x the median household of his home country?

Expand full comment

You’re putting a lot of weight on two or three testimonials that said “things are getting worse since the days I was a kid”. You should see if there are *more* of those testimonials now than there were in the 1990s or 1970s, or if they are at the same frequency, before believing that the 1990s were a relevant change.

Expand full comment

Mark Arax's work is helpful in detailing some of the bad choices that have had toxic effects on the CV, but many of the underlying issues have been there for a long, long time—way before the 1990s.

Expand full comment

In parallel, there is an area of Hawaii that was impoverished and unscenic. I remember reading that Bette Midler(actress) grew up in such an area. Still, there are degrees of unscenic!

Expand full comment

I'm going to guess the brain drain is a central problem. And it is the same across much of the USA. Smart people go to college, get good jobs and leave. I kept thinking of "Coming Apart" by C. Murray, if I was any good at writing I would enter it in next years book review.

Expand full comment

Glibly, it's only bad if by the standards of the USA. By Mexican standards it's pretty normal.

Expand full comment

If you look at raw population growth, the central Valley is if anything doing better than the coasts:


Expand full comment

Conservative historian Victor Davis Hanson has written extensively about the Central Valley. His farming family has lived there at least two generations and he gives very good insights about what has happened in the culture of the place.

Expand full comment

Wow, there are a lot of comments here. But the story sounds similar to another valley, the one I grew up in: the Ohio River Valley. It also crashed in the late 1990s. The cause there was the litigation against Big Tobacco. Tobacco was a labour intensive crop that also generated a lot of money per acre. My small town of 2000 people had three auction warehouses. A family with a small amount of land 20 acres or so could easily make a nice little supplement to their factory income off the tobacco crop. big tobacco gets sued, the lawyers get rich and the small town Ohio Valley farmers never recovered. This brings up an issue that might be relevant to California: Tobacco, like milk and chicken in Canada was a supply side regulated industry. The farmer had a quota, which created scarcity artificially, but this then boosted price and profits for the farmer. I suspect that supply side quota systems are not in place in the central valley for their crops. This ensures big farms with slim margins. Similar to the central valley, the Ohio Valley also suffers from smog and pollution at higher levels. Coal gets shipped down from West Virginia to countless coal power plants along the river. What would be worth exploring since the date of decline in California central valley seems to be a few years after the political shift from Red State to Blue State is what policy changes took place during that time?

Expand full comment

Graphing per capita income relative to California seems a bit off -- California as a whole has grown significantly wealthier in the past few decades, so the change "relative" would be a weird combination of central valley getting worse off vs. e.g. the Bay Area getting richer.

More generally, I would be curious how much this is a central valley problem and how much the same would be true if you took the agricultural parts of any state -- is it just that the poorest parts of every state are worse off than Mississippi? That would point to very different explanations than "what specifically is bad about the Central Valley?"

Expand full comment

Alternative theory: The cost of doing business in California is very high, the parts of California that have low labor/capital intensive businesses can absorb this overhead in ways that the poorer high labor/capital intensive areas cannot.


Expand full comment

Hmm...I was about to say that, while I liked this essay, the whole "poor region in a rich state" thing is hardly unique to California. Which I think is still true, but eyeballing that list of metropolitan areas by per capita income, my test case - Upstate New York - doesn't come off as badly as the Central Valley. The lowest-ranked city, Rochester, is 156th; NYC is 14th. Still a big difference, but not as big as the difference between, say the Bay Area and Bakersfield.

(Might also be worth mentioning that those figures are from 2010, and LA ranks 86th. Also somehow Chicago isn't even on there? That seems weird.)

Also, Upstate New York, while bitterly cold in winter, is a pretty pleasant region otherwise. I'd rather live there than in the Central Valley. But it is quite poor, especially compared to the NYC area. Maybe the difference between LA/the Bay (especially the latter) and the Central Valley is just the most extreme example of a thing that exists throughout the country. Which would be very on-brand for California.

Expand full comment

Reading this article is how I imagine it feels to live in a "less-developed" part of the world and read poverty-porn articles from American media outlets. The author "drives through as fast as possible" but feels comfortable making sweeping claims on the "misery" of the Central Valley based on a couple of newspaper articles and a few time-series plots.  

"Temperatures often reach 110 F." Maybe going forward we'll see more of that, but by most accounts any day over 100 F is exceptional heat. A typical summer day? Balmy morning, a few hours of dry heat in the late afternoon, and warm, breezy evenings.

"Most people in the central Valley are conservative." The Central Valley is certainly more conservative than CA coastal cities. By area, I have no doubt that the Central Valley is majority conservative. But, since the author is already lumping the entire Central Valley under a single umbrella, I would be curious if "most" actually bears out in the distribution of political affiliations among Central Valley-ites. Lump in Sacramento and Stockton, and, since the author says "most people" and not "most voters," all of the non-citizen farm workers (documented or not).

"Sacramento is the sixth smoggiest area in the country." Based on an article from 1999. I would be curious how Sacramento air quality compares to standards today. "The smell." The author drove by a freeway-adjacent dairy on his way to LA and now knows what a four-hundred-mile swath of the country smells.

"Depressing tule fog." A morning mist that burns off by 8 am most days?

"Severe drought... partly [from] California diverting water to hydrate growing coastal cities." Coastal urban water demand has almost nothing to do with agricultural water shortages. Going to self-cite on this one (laziness; PhD in water resources engineering; married to a UC Berkeley water resources economist). Lack of winter rain/snow and associated land fallowing in the Central Valley almost definitely impacts agricultural labor demand.

"Everyone who can get out of the Central Valley does." Uh. Yes, most Californians are just dying to move to the Bay to try to eek out a semblance of life where a 2BR house costs $1.5M. If this doesn't reek of coastal elite naivety, I don't know what does. Disclaimer: By most definitions, I am a "coastal elite" (am reading this stack, after all) and, over the last 13 years lived in the Bay for a combined five years (and liked it).

"Drugs and crime have gotten worse." Like everywhere in the country.

The poverty and challenges of the Central Valley are super real. And it's no doubt great to see Bay-Area Californians peering outside of their bubble (walk around SF and survey strangers on what "the Delta" is to get a sense of the magnitude of that bubble). But this article amounts to the kind of naïve, drive-by opinion peddling that undermines nuance and so classically characterizes the self-assured attitudes that drive (similarly stupid) caricatures of "coastal elites."

Expand full comment

The main things you write about just make me think the answer is pretty simple. It is a place with a poor economy that attracted a disproportionate amount of poor people. You see this in a lot of rust belt areas too.

You have some former sawmill town, or railroad town that is the regional hub with ~15,000 people. It was while things were thriving 50-80 years ago the richest place with the nicest houses and best people for 50 miles in any direction. Then as the economy falls apart the well off people move out to lakes and maybe a neighboring bedroom community, and what you are left with is a hollowed out core that has the central business district, the cheapest housing in 50 miles in any direction, and not enough jobs for all the low skilled people who move in. unemployment ends up being horrific, and the misery is a lot more concentrated than if it was spread out across 3 counties like it was 50 year before. Plus there aren't the remaining doctors/lawyers still living in town to counterbalance those forces.

Basically the central valley is SF/LA but without all the rich and upper middle class people to balance out the poverty. So even if there is in aggregate fewer destitute people, the average is overall much worse.

A community with 100 HHs, 1 rich HH, 9 upper middle class HH, 30 middle class HH 30 working class HH and 30 indigent HH is MUCH more pleasant to live in than one with 20 HHs 1 upper middle class HH, 5 middle class HH, 8 working class HH and 6 indigent HH, even though the ratio of poor people is the same and the total number of them is lower.

Expand full comment

Yglesias recently wrote this about immigration policy:

> The unintended legacy of the 1996 Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act was that illicit seasonal labor migration was largely replaced by one-off permanent migration, while the three- and 10-year bans made it harder than ever for permanent unauthorized residents to regularize their status without meaningfully deterring illegal entry.

I'm making no claims at all here, because I don't understand the bigger picture of immigration trends in the Central Valley. But if you think that immigration is part of the story, it's worth noting that there were some policy shocks during this time period.

Expand full comment

> This is a weird article. It seems to confirm that things used to be better - nobody would call the Central Valley “the good life” now. But its concerns are smog, sprawl, and decreasing share of agriculture. These seem like the problems of somewhere that’s growing - local NIMBYs complaining that too many people want to move in.

I think these are indicative of a growth in *sprawling suburbs*, not in economic productivity. That is, people build houses to live there. But they commute into the city for work (or did pre-covid), and probably also spend a lot of their time and money there, and suburbs are notorious for costing more than they can ever collect in tax revenue to maintain. It also means a decrease in jobs available for anyone can't drive into the city, because these places tend not to build a lot of transit.

Expand full comment

What are their educational results like?

I have no idea but it seems important to explain, are they suffering from brain drain or does everything start off badly.

Expand full comment

Also the Albion's seed question, are they the same Mexicans as in LA or Arizona, my vague impression is that farm labourers are from the poorer more Indigenous South.

Expand full comment

Victor David Hanson, who has written frequently and vividly about the social decay of the valley over the years, had a moving book published in the 1990s, "Fields Without Dreams," about the decline of family farms and the consolidation of agriculture into what are effectively absentee plantations. (The Resnicks are the most famous farmers who live in Beverly Hills, but there are others.) I don't quite recall his specific diagnosis of the cause then, but farming has always been very hard work that kids look for ways to avoid.

As an aside, almost a decade ago there was a ballot measure proposed to split California into six states. Never actually got enough signatures, but there was an interesting analysis by the Legislative Analyst's Office.

If the plan passed, the state that he designated "Silicon Valley" would have been the richest of U.S. states, while "Central California" (mostly the San Joaquin Valley) would have been the poorest. And they are right next to each other, so the economic gradient feels especially steep.


Expand full comment

I grew up in Modesto, lived there through my teenage years and again in my early 20s.

It's probably a good thing you didn't focus too much on the crime in the Central Valley, because there are TV shows and media dedicated to its plight—American Crime's first season took place in Modesto (https://abc30.com/modesto-abc-american-crime-cecil-russell/718693/), there's the whole Scott Peterson/Laci Peterson murder story, and the fact that Central Valley cities each year vie for the highest grand theft auto rates in the nation—last I checked, Modesto was #1 several years running, but it looks to have been usurped by Bakersfield (by comparison, San Francisco is 6th worst in the nation, and I only see people on Twitter tweeting about crime in SF, let them move to the Valley and see what happens). https://www.thecentersquare.com/california/modesto-ca-is-among-the-worst-cities-in-the-country-for-auto-theft/article_b9607af3-0ec1-5f62-a2fa-15f8219fc390.html

Like a lot of my friends, we left the Central Valley but we still have friends and family who live there. Always a trip to go back on holidays, because it often reinforces why we left. The CV has some sparkles of industry (Gallo Wine probably is #1), but the drug problems, poverty, crime, politics, lack of attractions, and want of industry are hard to justify staying there in any permanent capacity. That being said, I wish my people the best!

Expand full comment

grew up in bako and it was nice. Seems much safer than LA but IDK. It's conservativish though so we must spew hatred cloaked in analysis. "entire economy is based on devastating the environment in various ways", how kind of you! Much of the air pollution is run off from LA plus it's mostly based on wind patterns anyway.

Expand full comment

Two scholars I know of have written about this problem eloquently. Joel Kotkin one of the foremost urbanists published: The Coming of Neo-Feudalism: A Warning to the Global Middle Class (2020). ISBN-13‏ : ‎ 978-1641770941 and has expounded on his thesis at https://www.newgeography.com/

Victor Davis Hanson is a scholar of the classics and warfare. He is also a central valley farmer. He wrote a book "Mexifornia: A State of Becoming" (2003) ISBN-13‏ : ‎ 978-1893554733. https://www.hoover.org/profiles/victor-davis-hanson

I think both of them would agree that policies, particularly "environmental" policies, imposed by the wealthy elites of the bay Area an LA have been enormously damaging to the working and poor classes of the Central Valley. Example: a large proportion of the fresh water coming out of the mountains is being directed to the Sacramento River delta to protect the Delta Smelt a sub species of bait fish, which is supposedly endangered and whose welfare trumps that of humans.

The way the urban elites treat the rural minorities in California (and New York) is a vivid demonstration of why the smaller states are protected by the two senators per state rule of the US constitution and the electoral college, and why they should never agree to give up those provisions.

Kotkin wrote and has written numerous artic

Expand full comment

I feel like this is where you could really get some benefit from high speed commuter rail. Put some high speed rail trains essentially running branch lines into San Francisco and (maybe) LA (the geography makes LA challenging in that regard), and build dense suburb development along the stops of the branch lines for people to commute into the coastal metro areas.

I do think there's a lot to the "plantation economy" aspect of it, especially as people started to stay longer and bring families with border restrictions tightening (much harder to cycle seasonally across the border with a crackdown and high costs for getting back into the US).

Expand full comment

I personally think the Valley is underrated and its diversity under-appreciated. This applies both to its cities and to its rural, ag-based communities. The stories of exploited and impoverished farm labor are all too true—“Factories in the Field” as Carey McWilliams famously described the situation back in Great Depression days. Yet there also are stories of upward mobility and cultural dynamism, such as the celebrated Masumoto and Thao family farms outside Fresno and the vibrant community of Punjabi truck drivers.

There is a treasure trove of literature, music, and other art coming from the Valley and/or about the Valley which has been accumulating since at least the 19th century. I will pick something relatively recent to share, a great track by Cracker from 2014: King of Bakersfield. https://youtu.be/dkvmzJkHx6E

The song illustrates some of the themes you discuss above, Scott, and it captures how love of the Valley is largely a matter of taste. For some, it is a version of California paradise; for others it is a long and boring stretch of empty highway miles. And for all those who know the Valley only from road trips along I-5, know that State Route 99 is significantly less empty. Even better, get off the main highways and explore the back roads. You may be surprised by the beautiful landscapes and interesting people and places you encounter.

Expand full comment

As an "urban" midwesterner (KC) engaged to an Iowan but somewhat familiar with Central Valley dynamics, my observation is that the comp to the Midwest is apples to oranges:

1) Yes, a lot of midwest farming is wheat and corn (along with soybean), which entails large corporate farming and all the requisite skill and know how required to do that effectively. Many workers (management on down) are typically college educated. The standard stereotype of midwest farmers being in this category doesn't stick. Many have stable incomes and fall into a normy lifestyle of family, faith and fandom for their alma maters football/basketball teams;

2) The Midwest farmers that are "independent" rely on a small group of local folks (sometimes family) who manage the land. This dynamic leads to leadership supporting them as best they can (you ain't going to let your cousin or daughter's friend she grew up with go hungry and shelterless).

Some do well, some dont. For the former, these are the millionaires youve never heard of ;

3) There are actually a large number of immigrants moving/living in midwest small towns, but they typically work in meatpacking, not ag. Again, these are large corporations with the related benefits. Couple that with the cheap cost of living, it's hard to "fall through the cracks";

4) A commenter stated that (surprisingly to most who have never lived or visited the Midwest) most actually live in cities and thus commuting from small rural enclaves to cities is rare. There's very little NIMBY dynamics there. Metro residents, aside from your occassional trip to a small town over the weekend or to go see family, stay in the metro, and visa versa.

Long and short, this article seems to hit the mark on the proper questions for "what's the matter with the central valley". It DOESN'T hit the mark on a comparison between 2 regions. The Midwest ag dynamic is much more stable (for the reasons mentioned above, plus some I'm sure I missed). Central Valley, not so much (for the reasons this article got right).

Expand full comment

Victor Davis Hanson has some thoughts: https://americancompass.org/essays/a-quiet-destruction/

Expand full comment

Look up Victor Davis Hanson. He owns a family farm in the valley and has written extensively about the changes to the region.

The standard California maladies of failing to police the underclass are made much worse when there isn't a giant prosperous industry like Tech throwing off lots of spillover wealth.

Expand full comment

<i>A pluralist and cosmopolitan would not be ambivalent nor suspicious.</i>

Almost all the self-described pluralists and cosmopolitans I've come across have been ambivalent and suspicious about traditional western culture.

You could say that they're not real cosmopolitans, but the comes a point where this kind of argument just ends up as "But real communism's never been tried!"-type special pleading.

Expand full comment

I know nothing really about the area, but something I heard from a Jefferson State activist has stayed with me:

His argument for wanting their own rural state in the northern 1/4 of the state is that California is ruled by the city people. They make laws that are great for city life, where nature is something pretty you want to preserve. Those laws then get applied to rural areas, where nature is something you make a living out of.

As a result, they live in a place very rich in resources, but they're not legally allowed to make a living of those riches, so poverty and misery abounds.

The Central Valley is different from the northern forests and mountains, but I assume some of the same dynamic is a factor.

Expand full comment

Some notes:

I've been in the Central Valley for 25 years, four in Bakersfield and 21 in Modesto. Since I'm here, you might think I'm good with it, and you'd be right.

Weather: It's not as hot as Yuma or Phoenix or [list of other too-hot cities]. It's still too hot.

Air Quality: It's gotten better since I've been here -

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S1352231020305525?via%3Dihub (less ag burning)

https://www.iqair.com/us/usa/california/fresno (everything is terrible, but meaningfully less terrible than it was)

Education: I don't really see Davis as genuinely a CV spot even if technically is, but there is a UC school - UC Merced. There are other colleges and universities in the Central Valley, but the area doesn't have high education levels overall.

Politics: "[M]ost people in the Valley are conservative." Relative to California, for sure, hard yes. Relative to everything, I don't think so.


If you look at the counties in the Central Valley, Sacramento's middle-blue, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Merced, and Fresno are light blue, while Madera, Tulare, and Kern are light red. My district has usually been pretty purple, with centrist D's and R's winning, though districts that attach to the mountain areas are red and those that head west get bluer.

This isn't all that new, either - Obama won most of the CV counties vs. McCain.

The LA Times: Look, I still subscribe to the Times, but this story isn't persuasive to me. To their credit, they quoted the late Carol Whiteside, who was one of the people who moved things forward here - downtown Modesto's not downtown (pick Bay Area town), but it's nice. Plus that's 23 years ago.

Per capita income: Cost of living is still much less, but housing prices have really spiked once again. We were ground zero (OK, maybe some areas in Michigan, but...) in the 2007ish crash; we had a wild, obvious bubble. This feels less bubbly. Housing prices are a genuine issue.

Crime: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/California_locations_by_crime_rate#Counties

Sorting by violent crime rate... yeah, not great. The top five counties include just one CV county, but the next five include three.

Brain Drain: I can only say what I've seen in dealing with really smart kids around here: Yeah, they're out. I helped coach some kids in middle school on a robotics team, and the four strongest kids are all the children of immigrants, all have done well (Stanfordx2, Cornell, MIT, and one of them is now at Yale Medical School, so... yeah, smart, high achieving kids.) They're not coming back, and I don't think there's a good argument that they should. That's a problems for lower education areas.

Commute: I commute eight minutes to work. I have done the long commute, and there are heavily commuter-based towns way far away from the Bay Area. This seems awful. Proposed solutions are outside this comment's scope.

Vibe: Look, I'm not going to form a Jonathan Coulton fan club that meets every Tuesday, and I'm pretty sure there will never be an active Modesto ACT group. I get it. But we've got some culture - even if some of the acts that come through are the elderly versions of long-ago bands, our county has the Gallo Center for the Arts, which is really nice; an arthouse theater; and places to walk and see a lot of birds.

Plus a ton of really cool cars. It's a thing.

The restaurant scene is pretty good. Is it Cambridge? It is not. But I like it here.

Caveat: I also have a job where I don't break a literal sweat and in the summer, we have air conditioning for the human-unfriendly weather. There is real poverty, which I am not oblivious to.

That's all the CV I have for the moment.

Expand full comment

The smog sounds like a failure of government - lots of agricultural regions have bad air quality during harvesting season when farmers burn leftover biomass, but strong public coordination should be able to deal with it. Is the smog present year-round?

The jobs situation sounds like a classic case of cost disease - it's increasingly hard to justify working a low value-added job like being a farm laborer, when San Francisco has tons of tech jobs, or even service jobs like Uber driving.

Expand full comment

A few years ago I lived on top of a huge hill looking east over the 580 freeway which connects the Central Valley to the East Bay and South Bay areas. I can still perfectly remember how depressing it was seeing the endless stream of headlights from what seemed like the millions of people making their daily 1.5 hour slog at 4:30 or 5:00 AM from their “affordable” Central Valley homes over the Altamont Pass on their way to what I’m guessing were their blue collar or lower level white collar jobs all over the Bay Area.

Expand full comment

I read a book, The Dreamt Land, by someone who grew up in the Central Valley.

Two things that stuck with me:

- many of the farms were (still are?) owned by Armenians

- these owners were all fiercely individualistic. Which sounds great except it means they always refused to engage in any sorts of communal enterprises to popularize a new fruit, or brand a particular variety of fruit, or whatever. And so it was large companies like Pom that took in all the value from pomegranates becoming popular - because they were willing to do the co-ordination and groundwork that the small farmers were not willing to do.

Expand full comment

The answer isn't rocket science.

It is:

1) Ongoing farmer economic repression by middleman/distributor monopsonies

2) Not just water diversion to the cities, but specific billionaire fuckery - look up the Sinclairs

3) They're still red...in a blue politics dominated state. Talking about red-headed stepchild...

4) Air quality is because of smog blowing in from the Bay Area into the bowl with a small opening. While car tailpipe emissions have reduced, wildfires have more than made up for it.

Expand full comment

I’m sure California’s absurd system of senior and junior water rights doesn’t help. It distorts incentives, e.g. against efficient drip irrigation vs just flooding fields with water if you’re senior.

Expand full comment
Sep 22, 2022·edited Sep 22, 2022

What about NAFTA?

NAFTA happened in the 90s and it had an enormous impact on the lives of Mexican farmers. It drove millions of farmers off their land because they couldn't compete with American farms, which were subsidized and more modern.

Impoverished Mexican small farmers had less opportunity in Mexico, so migration was basically a required to survive, whereas before many had migrated seasonally to make some extra cash.

Tightening of immigration also made it difficult for migrants to return home at the end of the season, so many were forced to stay in the US.

From CBS news in 2006 https://www.cbsnews.com/news/is-nafta-good-for-mexicos-farmers/

"Farmers said that entire towns are emptying because thousands of small farms have gone out of business. As many as 2 million farm workers have lost their jobs — the vast majority headed north across the U.S. border looking for better pay."

Expand full comment

I'd be curious to know: what % of the Central Valley's GDP is exported from the local economy in the form of remittances abroad? This would seem to be a phenomenon that took off around the time period in question. It's otherwise confounding how a huge, successful industry that employs incredibly productive and in-demand employees contribute to conditions that result in such poor communities.

Expand full comment

Hay pueblos que saben a desdicha. Se les conoce con sorber un poco de su aire viejo y entumido, pobre y flaco como todo lo viejo.

Allá, de donde venimos ahora, al menos te entretenías mirando el nacimiento de las cosas: nubes y pájaros, el musgo, ¿te acuerdas? Aquí en cambio no sentirás sino ese olor amarillo y acedo que parece destilar por todas partes.

Expand full comment

High Country News has covered issues impacting the Central Valley for several decades. This recent article talks about the impact of water use regulations having negative impacts on the valley's ability to deal with it's horrible air quality issues. https://www.hcn.org/articles/south-water-conserve-groundwater-fallow-farmland-increase-dust

The more recent decline, which you mention in passing but don't expand on is regarding the impacts of climate change and its exacerbation of the mega drought and exacerbating the already existing issues with water resources, not just for the valley but CA as whole and its ability to grow crops in soils that increasingly are being denuded of nutrient and carrying capacity. These in turn impact the already high risk variability of crop production and reliance on monocrops. The Central Valley is being asked to fallow fields at a higher rate now to divert water towards the cities which in turn increases dust, which impacts air quality, which impacts out laborers abilities to work. All of these have knock-on effects towards make the CV progressively worse. More Angelinos and San Franciscans moving to the CV for cheaper housing only compounds the existing issues of an area that has operated at full-extraction levels for decades while kicking the can down the road.

Expand full comment
User was banned for this comment. Show
Expand full comment
Sep 24, 2022·edited Sep 24, 2022

I'm not from California, and I've never visited the Central Valley, but it seems to me that the situation is very similar to the situation in New York. In New York, half the population and most of the money are in New York City and its immediate environs. Upstate is smaller towns and cities, with a lot of farmland and decaying old industries. State policies are set to satisfy New York City residents, but these policies are profoundly unsuited to upstate, and upstate has become old, poor, and rundown. (I'm not from New York either, but Megan Mcardle wrote on these issues many times when she was at The Atlantic and Bloomberg).

Similarly, it seems to me that most of the population, and nearly all the money in California are in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and their immediate environs. Statewide policies are set based on the voting populations of these areas, and these policies have some serious costs. Specifically:

* Land use restrictions make building anything new extremely difficult. I know this is a huge problem in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and any coastal area - not sure whether there are similar problems in the Central Valley.

* Environmental rules have diverted water that used to be used for irrigation in the Central Valley to make rivers "more natural", putting strain in the Central Valley's agriculture.

* Water priorities have sent more of the available water to the cities, further straining agriculture.

* Climate change policies, particularly mandates for renewable energy, have made electricity expensive, making many industrial activities too expensive to operate. For highly educated tech workers or entertainment industry workers, this is a plus - it banishes dirty and noisy industries. But, workers in the Central Valley could really use industrial opportunities.

* California's legal system encourages anyone to become a freelance Attorney General, suing businesses for putative violations of laws pertaining to disability accommodation or consumer protection. This allows multiple people to sue public businesses, such as stores or restaurants, for huge awards unrelated to actual damages suffered by any person, which makes starting and operating a business riskier than it needs to be.

* California's unemployment insurance system seems to be designed to encourage and protect fraud. Warren Meyer (coyoteblog.com) has written about his experience with this system, but to cite one specific case: he had workers who left his seasonal business at the end of the work season, went to Mexico to spend the winter, but claimed to be actively seeking employment in California. When he called the state Unemployment Office to report obvious fraud, not only was the Office uninterested in pursuing the issue, but he was warned that he could be sued for maligning the employees in question.

* California led the nation in instituting a $15 per hour minimum wage. This may work well in the rich cities, but probably has contributed to mechanization in agriculture, while eliminating a potential lure for industrial businesses to move to the Central Valley.

All of these things are either desirable or tolerable to highly educated tech workers or highly paid entertainment workers in the rich coastal areas. They help to maintain the type of communities attractive to these voters, and allow them to signal their virtue by "looking out for the little guy." But, I suspect, the little guys in the Central Valley are deprived of opportunities to make a good life for themselves.

Edit to add: Errr - I hadn't quite read to the end of the post before I started my response. If I had, I would have noticed that Scott touched on several of my points near the end. I do think it's worthwhile to go into more specifics on the issues as I suspect them.

Expand full comment

I disagree with the implied premise of "We would expect the Central Valley to be richer than Mississippi because it's in a rich state". There's plenty of evidence of very rich and very poor neighborhoods in the same city! (SF, LA, Chicago, etc.) Any benefit from being in a rich area is clearly worthless when the rich people just don't care about you. It would actually be more interesting and unusual if everybody in the state had their economic situation clearly linked together.

Expand full comment

> it’s humbling and a little scary to realize how much poverty is so close to me, in such a rich state.

Look at the rate of homelessness for Cali its like top 5, https://www.statista.com/statistics/727847/homelessness-rate-in-the-us-by-state/

Its functionally not a rich state for majority of people who live in it, but yeah on paper its "rich". By the way Mississippi has the LOWEST homelessness rate of any state.

Typical of urban idiots who don't understand the world to call everybody else poor after glancing at a number on a piece of paper once. This type of ignorance is what has made the average city slicking tardo in the US to pull wieners out for every country which doesn't have a trillion dollar gee dee pee.

Expand full comment

Great piece. Bet the California Native Americans, East Coast intellectuals like Thomas Jefferson, and the better natures of the people themselves never imagined we could make such a mess of a previously beautiful place. Apply the same tactics to “Anywhere, USA” and we may be close to the root of the problem. Look around at your country in 2022. The destruction is epidemic and it is planetary.

Expand full comment

I grew up in Fresno and yes, it gets very hot (there used to almost be a charm to that heat, a dry heat you’ll always hear). The air has definitely gotten worse, the valley traps smog and agriculture adds large particle pollutants. I left four years ago for Albuquerque. It’s still hot here but I’m always glad that we’re 90 something as my mom reports to me it’s 114 or something crazy hot like that. Fresno was a good place to grow up 60s through maybe 2000. Before I left I noticed the homeless were moving northeast. Lots of homeless here in ABQ too, can’t go out without seeing them. I remember the park I once lived across the street from. Eventually you couldn’t walk through it without seeing some discarded needles. Vinland Park and Vinland Elementary. It was a good place to grow up in. I hope it gets better.

Expand full comment

I would say this article is not even close enough to the true bleakness that is the Central Valley. Contact Dr. Eric Hickey, a local and renowned criminologist and you will get a picture of the historical crime rates (especially murder), gang activity and prison population (higher than anywhere else on the planet).

Coupled with the other details of your article, a lack of fair government funding and a place of weather extremes, you only touching the surface. Most towns, including Fresno, have an extremely provincial mindset, cronyism, and corruption are laid out in local media.

Digging deeper will only get you an exponentially dark picture and there is no light at the bottom only more of the abyss.

Expand full comment

I'm a coastal Californian, but have spent substantial time in Bakersfield and Fresno in the past. Both of those cities have enough economic activity (Bakersfield has a lot of oil & gas executives and big farming families, closely held whether or not corporate) to create some dynamism. Many square miles of north Fresno and Clovis are indistinguishable from Santa Clara or Orange Counties - disappointing in the usual American way - big box stores and chain restaurants, but nothing really lacks compared to the coastal counties. Fresno has a symphony if Sacramento doesn't; Bakersfield has active sister city exchanges with 5 cities around the world. Don't know about fine dining in Fresno, but Bakersfield has quite a few surprises. Just think these places are more dynamic and less monolithic than the article implies.

Expand full comment

There are many reasons several of these crops should move to the mid south region along the Mississippi. The California regulatory system creates an added burden. But even without those regulations the natural water supply and climate in the mid south would likely increase net productivity. The decline in California is likely a comparative advantage issue.

Expand full comment

This sounds like a generic farm country complaint. It's boring. There are farms all over the place, some with animals living on them and the ones without animals are full of plants which are even worse. You have to schlep into town to get anywhere interesting, and there isn't much in town. If you are young, educated or ambitious, you'll head into a city to see how far you can get. There's a dearth of human capital because of the aforementioned. It's right out of an 18th century novel or a medieval folk tale except without actual starvation.

Expand full comment

Modesto Is the worst one it’s so hot and poverty is everywhere

Expand full comment