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How many of your Fresno neighbors are on food stamps, welfare? You may be surprised

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand on local jobs

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand discusses the challenges posed by high rates of unemployment and poverty, and the opportunities for new future jobs in the city. His comments address new demographic data for 2017 from the U.S. Census Bureau.
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Fresno Mayor Lee Brand discusses the challenges posed by high rates of unemployment and poverty, and the opportunities for new future jobs in the city. His comments address new demographic data for 2017 from the U.S. Census Bureau.

More than one out of every five households in both the city of Fresno and Fresno County receive food stamps or other supplemental food assistance – by far the highest rates of people getting food aid among California’s most populous cities and counties.

The U.S. Census Bureau’s latest American Community Survey estimates for 2017, released publicly this week, also reveal that more than half of senior citizens in the city, and almost half in the county, cope with some degree of disability. Those, too, are the largest proportions among the 17 biggest counties and six biggest cities in the state.

The estimates are based on a nationwide survey of more than 3.5 million households nationwide by the Census Bureau, including about 330,000 in California, to provide a statistical snapshot of demographic, social, economic and other aspects of the state and nation. Thursday’s release provides a detailed look at larger cities and counties. Statistics for less-populated areas, including neighboring counties in the central San Joaquin Valley, are due to be released in the coming months.

More than 38,000 households in Fresno – or about 22.6 percent of almost 170,000 – receive food help in the form of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or food stamps in 2017. Of almost 306,000 households countywide, about 62,000 or 20.2 percent are getting such help.

Similarly, Fresno and the county led the state’s most populous cities and counties in the proportion of households receiving other public cash assistance. About 8.3 percent of the county’s households, and 9 percent of households in the city, collected such aid last year, according to the census estimates. The average amount of aid per household in Fresno was almost $3,400, while county recipients got an average of almost $3,500.

Poverty rates for families, especially for families led by single mothers with young children, were also higher in Fresno than in the other major cities in the state. Just over half of families with children under 5 years old and headed by a single woman lived in poverty in 2017, the census estimates reveal. But that is down significantly from just a year earlier, when the rate was estimated at more than 61 percent of those families were deemed to be in poverty.

The proportion of all families, with or without children, also fell from one year to the next. In 2016, the Census Bureau estimated that 24.5 percent of Fresno families were in poverty, compared to 19.3 percent in 2017. That improvement in the poverty rate was accompanied by an increase in the median household income in Fresno from just under $45,000 in 2016 to nearly $49,000 in 2017.

Those modest improvements are enough to encourage Fresno’s mayor, Lee Brand, who’s identified reducing poverty and growing jobs as priorities for his tenure.

“I’ve been here since the 1950s, and Fresno’s never been rich town,” Brand said Wednesday. “But in the last 30 years, it’s become a big city, with big-city problems like poverty and crime.”

Brand said the arrival this year of Amazon and Ulta Beauty, each establishing large warehouses and hiring hundreds of workers in south Fresno, is just one step toward providing jobs for which people with lower skill and education levels can qualify, “so they have a chance to pull themselves up on the first step to prosperity.”

At Ulta, shift schedules that provide overtime pay every day can elevate a full-time worker’s pay to “close to $3,000 a month,” Brand added. “And there are some husbands and wives who both work there, so together they’re making about $72,000 a year.”

At that rate, they can qualify to buy a mid-priced home in the Fresno market, “or get a high-level apartment, lease a car, buy a big screen TV,” Brand said. “They’re getting some consumer power. … In Fresno, $15 an hour gives you a lot more spending power than other parts of the state.”

Other employers are making smaller impacts on unemployment, sometimes 10 or 20 jobs at a time, said Brand, citing businesses like steel-tank builder Modern Custom Manufacturing or JD Foods that have expanded and hired people making as much as $25 or more per hour. “What you don’t see is a lot of the smaller stories going on. This economy is expanding,” Brand said.

“By historical standards, this is uncharted territory for the city of Fresno,” he added, referring to continuing improvement in the city’s unemployment rate on a year-over-year basis. Fresno’s unemployment rate for July 2018 was estimated at 6.4 percent by the state Employment Development Department.

Still, the census data reveals other challenges for Fresno and Fresno County compared to other parts of the state.

The county’s median household income – the point at which half of homes make more and half make less – was estimated at just shy of $52,000 per year in 2017. Among the most populous counties in the state, that was the second lowest figure, well below estimates ranging from about $60,000 in Stanislaus County to almost $117,000 in San Mateo County. Only Kern County, at just under $50,000, was below Fresno County.

Fresno County also has a bigger share of residents who deal with some form of disability than the other counties, according to the Census estimates. Overall, about 14.6 percent of the county’s overall population has a disability. Among working-age adults, ages 18 to 64, it’s 12.7 percent. And for senior citizens age 65 and older, the proportion is more than 45 percent.

The county also holds the unfortunate distinction of having the third highest percentage of people, behind Kern County, who don’t have a high school diploma. Almost 24 percent of Fresno County residents who are age 25 or older failed to complete high school. In Kern County, the percentage is almost 27 percent. Kern and Fresno counties also ranked among the bottom four, along with Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties among the large counties, for the lowest percentages of residents age 25 and older who have at least a four-year bachelor’s degree from college.

Only 16 percent of Kern County’s residents have a college degree, compared to 17.5 percent in Stanislaus County, 18.9 percent in San Joaquin County, and 20.4 percent in Fresno County.

Tim Sheehan: 559-441-6319; Twitter: @TimSheehanNews.

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