Fresno Bee On the Ground with the New Joads

The Fresno Bee goes to the “unemployment capital of California” and returns with some stark imagery, scenes that conjure the Great Depression. This is Grapes of Wrath-like stuff, with 41 percent unemployment and fieldhands idled as farmland goes fallow.

I’ll repeat that: Forty-one percent unemployment. Incredible. Here’s how it plays out:

The customer seemed interested in a black blouse offered for $1 at the thrift store. But instead of buying it, she set it on the front counter.

Maybe tomorrow, she told the cashier, she would have the money. Or the next day. But not now.


Alcoholism and crime are on the rise. To save money, some mothers wash and re-use disposable diapers. Unemployed men with nothing to do wander the streets and sit on benches.


Back in Mendota, Reyes, who runs the dilapidated thrift store with her daughter, spent a recent morning watching customers trickle in and out. A sign hanging above an American flag behind her read: “Lord, help me hang in there.” So far that day, she had sold only a pair of glass jars — for $5.


Some laborers are traveling up to 100 miles to work in fields near Bakersfield for just a few hours a day, said Ruben Duarte, a pastor in Huron.

If you recall your Steinbeck, you’ll recognize this dilemma:

Typically, families who are here illegally are scared to ask for help, said Joanna Lopez, a First 5 instructor who visits San Joaquin families in their homes. But she has noticed that as money becomes more scarce, fear has given way to desperation and more families are asking how they can receive food donations and benefit from social services programs.

Illegal immigrants, however, are eligible for only a limited number of social services programs, said Hornback, the county’s employment and temporary assistance director.

You can make a case that illegal immigrants are the new Okies and Arkies—living in fear of the authorities, far from home, in a crumbling economy, with no safety net. Lots of legal immigrants are not much better off.

We’ve imported a new underclass, one that we haven’t granted our rights, over the last decade or two that we mostly keep out of sight, out of mind—so long as we have cheap lettuce and chicken breasts.

Will we notice the hard times as much if—unlike the vivid pictures we remember of the fair-skinned people in the Great Depression—they affect people who don’t look like most of us in the media, or speak our language, or hang out in our circles? These folks are the most vulnerable.

There are a couple of other interesting phenomena picked up by the Bee here, like the paradox of unemployment insurance:

Hilario Munoz, 56, an immigrant from El Salvador who has lived in Mendota for eight years, sat on a curbside bench with his friend on a recent morning, staring across the street. He used to harvest melons, tomatoes, asparagus and lettuce but hasn’t had work for six months.

Asked what he does all day, Munoz replied in Spanish: “Just like you see us now — relaxing, surviving on unemployment.”

If he can’t find a job soon, Munoz said, he may try to find work at one of the slaughterhouses near Fresno. But he’d rather not.

No kidding. Unemployment’s probably not much lower-paying than a $7-an-hour job gutting animals—and it’s certainly not as messy.

Also, there’s the interplay of natural forces with man-made ones—another Steinbeck theme. These farms and the settlements that support them have sprung up on unsustainable land. Now a drought and environmental laws are shriveling them up:

During this third year of drought, farmers on the west side are fallowing hundreds of thousands of acres and hiring fewer than half the workers they did two years ago. They blame the dry weather and federal environmental laws — meant to protect endangered species of fish — that have severely restricted how much water can flow into the west side.

With the prospect of more water shortages in the future, many farmers are shifting toward less water-dependent crops that don’t require as many workers. That could prove devastating to hundreds, if not thousands, of families in west-side towns who have always depended on agriculture jobs.

The endangered-fish bit is worth a whole other story.

More like this, please.

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Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR's business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.