Fresno’s ‘tale of two cities’: Which neighborhoods receive the most government aid?

More than one out of five households in the city of Fresno receive some form of public assistance, either in the form of food aid through CalFresh or direct cash assistance from the government.

Out of about 181,000 households in Fresno, the U.S. Census Bureau estimated that more than 41,000, or 22.6% received CalFresh benefits – known federally as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP and formerly referred to as food stamps.

The Bee’s analysis is based on the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey for 2017, the most recent data available at the census tract level.

The vast majority of those low-income recipient households – more than 83 percent – are concentrated in census tracts south of Shaw Avenue, often described by local leaders as an economic line of demarcation between the more affluent northern parts of Fresno and modest-to-poor neighborhoods in central and south Fresno.

Almost 20 years ago, then-candidate-for-mayor Alan Autry famously recalled author Charles Dickens to describe the economic divide as a “tale of two cities,” but the chasm between north Fresno’s haves and south Fresno’s have-nots goes much further back in the city’s history.

It has been characterized by a decades-long dearth of substantial commercial and infrastructure investment in aging neighborhoods of central, southeast and southwest Fresno, even as new residential and commercial development surged northward.

It stubbornly remains today with pockets of concentrated poverty and residents’ reliance on public aid. The figures themselves tell the tale that Autry and others have expressed. Out of 120 census tracts in the city:

  • Almost half of those tracts, 58, have poverty rates of at least 25% – and all but three of those are south of Shaw Avenue.The federal income threshold for a family of four to be considered in poverty is $25,750 a year.
  • More than half, 66, have at least 25 percent of households that receive CalFresh/SNAP benefits for food assistance. All but five of those are south of Shaw.
  • More than 60 percent of the tracts, 73, have a median household income that is less than the citywide median of about $48,000 per year. All but eight of those tracts are south of Shaw. The median income is the point at which half of households make more and half make less.

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The divide is not limited simply to geography. The Census Bureau estimates more than half of Fresno’s Hispanic or Latino households, or 54.4%, received CalFresh/SNAP food benefits. That’s a rate at least three times greater than any other single race or ethnic group in the city: 16.3% of non-Hispanic whites, 16.0% of blacks, and 10.4% of Asians.

Addressing the gap

In October, a coalition of businesses and organizations including the Central Valley Community Foundation said it will soon announce a program of initiatives aimed at reducing economic inequality across Fresno and the Valley region.

Former Fresno mayor Ashley Swearengin, president and CEO of the Valley foundation, said Fresno DRIVE – the acronym stands for Developing our Region’s Inclusive and Vibrant Economy – has “an enormous 10-year goal of lifting the economic region of the central San Joaquin Valley and ensuring that the residents of our community benefit from that upward economic growth.”

Unlike past economic strategies to attract business to the community, Swearengin said, Fresno DRIVE focuses not only on business or industry, but on the needs of residents and addressing racial and economic disparities.

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Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.