Total Pageviews

Monday, July 21, 2008


***Honored with the 2009 Ruben Salazar Journalism Award

Tough Economic Times In Fresno
by Phillip Martin Listen Now

Day to Day, July 21, 2008 · For some people in California's central valley, life resembles scenes from The Grapes of Wrath. A report called "Measure of America" names Fresno, Calif., the least economically developed part of the country. Opportunities to make a decent living can be very hard to find there due to drought and unemployment. As part of our "California Dreamin'" series, Phillip Martin looks at what makes Fresno such a difficult case.

It was 115 degrees when the United Airlines jet landed in Fresno under a brilliant mid-day sun. Once outside the terminal I was greeted by a blast of desert air and a Punjabi taxi driver who explained why he moved to this city of 500,000. Farming. That one word explains why communities representing eighty different ethnic groups have come to call Fresno home. This is America's bread-basket, and it requires all levels of work to get fresh fruits and vegetables from the ground to the marketplace. Farming also helps explain why Fresno County ranks dead last on the American Human Development Index, which measures aggregate health, education, income, longevity and other indicators on a congressional district by district basis.

Hmong Poster at Fresno City Hall Photo by Phillip Martin, NPR

Pesticides, air quality and back-bending labor mean that people in Fresno die on average four-and-a-half years earlier than folks at the top end of the index. Farming is seasonal, and when the planting is good, farm workers can scratch out a living--barely. When it's bad--as it is now with a drought that has reduced water output by forty percent--it can be disastrous. I held a tomato in my hand that was as dry as a deflated beach ball.

For 39-year old Felipe Jesus Perez, California has been both a dream, and lately, a six-year continuum of restless nights. He lost his job in the fields in 2003 after his foot and tendons were crushed in a cotton harvester. He gets around the town of Firebaugh in Fresno, County these days with a cane. With a smile on his face he told me he's willing and ready to work.

Felipe Perez: I get my diploma in auto mechanics and I did some applications for different kind of job, but they watch me with a cane and tell me 'let me call you later' and they never call me. And I stay in the same place with the same money, with the workers comp that they're paying me.
Phillip Martin: And you say you're recieving Workman's Compensation? Felipe Perez: Yeah that's right. Phillip Martin: Any other compensation? Felipe Perez: No just that.
Farmworker Felipe Jesus Perez Farmworker Felipe Jesus Perez Photo by Phillip Martin, NPR

Felipe joins the ranks of almost 30 percent of the population of the County who are jobless and depend on seasonal agricultural employment.

Before flying West to Fresno I was on the New York City's Upper East Side interviewing residents there about lifestyles, concerns and worries. The economic disparities highlighted in the new American Human Development report were brutally sharp on the ground when comparing this neighborhood to Fresno. Melissa Morris, an amiable and prolific blogger, gave me a tour of her Carnegie Hill neighborhood on the Upper-East-Side, which the American Human Development Index lists as the number one district in the country in terms of human development.

Melissa Morris: Well there's a lot of little fashion boutiques for women. There's a lot of upscale children's clothing boutiques. There are fancy sort of dog grooming salons for my dog, and gourmet food shops. Just being a home cook for many years I know what's in season in terms of fruits and vegetables and I try to buy those.

28 year-old Morris--whose popular blog might best be described as the "lifestyles of the rich and preppy"--lives with her multimillionaire husband Chappy and a miniature Italian greyhound named Monty. If human development is predicated on opportunities and choices to improve one's life, than the upper east side of New York is a showcase of privilege. "The sidewalks are very clean," Melissa explains. "They're kept clean largely by the doormen who will be out there sweeping if there's trash strewn about."

Jose Bermudez has been opening doors at thehigh rise apartment building where Melissa resides for more than 15 years. He says it's no mystery why Upper East Side residents live relatively longer lives than people on the bottom half of the American human development scale: "People are relaxed and down to earth. I guess it's the lifestyle."

A homeless encampment in Fresno A homeless encampment in Fresno Photo by Phillip Martin, NPR

According to the American Human Development Index, half of the residents of Fresno, County earn less than 17 thousand dollars a year. Upper East Side residents on average earn about 116,000 dollars. Many, like the Morris's, bring in much, much more. Melissa and her husband, like many residents of the Upper East Side, also own a large, spacious second home in Connecticut. But money is not the only resource that makes life here so comfortable. There's also easy access to world class museums, well stocked libraries and a sea of other amenities. The gulf between Melissa and Felipe' most pressing worry when I spoke to them is about as wide as the continent that divides them:

"Currently right now I'm worried about my little dog with his broken leg," says Melissa. "This has been an ongoing series of injuries with him and he's very fragile. I love him very much, so I'm worried about him making a full recovery."

For Felipe, the worries are bit different: "I'm worried that I have three kids, my wife and I don't have a job we don't find any kind of job for my wife. She is doing some applications in different kind of jobs and nobody call her."

You can take a more comprehensive look at the American Human Development Index here and here.

--Phillip WD Martin (You can visit Phillip's blog here.)

Comments (Send a comment)

No comments:

WGBH , PRI and BBC Announce a World-Wide Reporting Initiative Focused on Color

WGBH Radio, Public Radio International and the BBC have announced the launch of “The Color Initiative”, a landmark journalism project that will examine complex global issues of politics, culture, history and society through the framework of human perceptions and experiences related to color. Once complete, this on-going project will air on The World, broadcasting on WGBH 89.7, Mon-Fri at 4pm and 7pm. Feature Color Initiative stories reported from around the globe will be produced by Lifted Veils Productions, a Boston-based non-profit radio journalism organization dedicated to exploring issues that divide society. Former NPR supervising senior editor and NPR’s former Race Relations Correspondent, Phillip Martin, will serve as lead correspondent. He is also the Executive Producer of Lifted Veils Productions. Anthony Brooks, The World’s former senior producer and former national correspondent for NPR, is the Color Initiative series editor. The World’s Executive Producer is Bob Ferrante. The project is made possible by a grant from the Ford Foundation and the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. “The establishment of an international editorial beat dedicated to covering color worldwide is the first of its kind, and places The World in a unique position in public radio in the United States and Britain,” says Marita Rivero, General Manager for WGBH Radio and Television. Among the topics that will be explored by the Color Initiative are: • COLOR AND IMMIGRATION: A FOUR PART SERIES • IRAQ’S WAR DEAD, AMERICA’S RESPONSE AND THE ROLE OF COLOR • CASTE, COLOR AND EDUCATION IN INDIA The first report in the year-long project looks at the on-going marketing campaign by Benetton, which mixes business with socially conscious messages focusing on diversity of all sorts, including color. Those messages are now coming up against growing anti-immigrant realities in Europe, including the dominant presence of the Northern League in the very Italian city where Benetton is headquartered: Treviso. That report airs in early November. About The World Winner of the 2006 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for Broadcast News, The World with anchor Lisa Mullins has been bringing daily international news to local audiences for the past 10 years. Monday through Friday at 4pm on WGBH 89.7, the international staff of The World presents a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. The World is the first international radio news program developed specifically for an American audience, giving listeners an upbeat and informed take on the day's events. Co-produced by WGBH, the BBC World Service, and Public Radio International, The World is heard on more than 200 public radio stations across the country. About WGBH Listener-supported WGBH 89.7 is Boston's NPR® arts and culture station. Bringing you the best for more than 50 years, 89.7 serves its wide-ranging audience with a menu of classical music, NPR news, jazz, blues, folk, and spoken-word programs. The station is an active participant in New England's vibrant music community, presenting more than 300 performances every year, including live broadcasts and remote recordings from such diverse venues as Tanglewood, the Lowell Folk Festival, the Newport Jazz Festival, and WGBH's own studios. WGBH 89.7 can be heard online anywhere in the world at, and can be heard on Nantucket at WNCK 89.5.