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Lake County: A community in crisis

  • Chris Noonkester gives son Dylan,4, a ride outside the Dollar Store in Lakeport Monday while his wife, Brandi, shops inside. After Noonkester's hours at Sutter Lakeside Hospital were cut, the family trimmed its spending by 20 percent. (MARK ARONOFF / PD)

At the dollar store in Lakeport on Monday, Chris and Brandi Noonkester managed to stay within their budget.

They spent $6.

The couple has painstakingly slashed what already had been a meager budget by 20 percent when his hours were reduced at work. How do they feel about that? “We're pretty blessed,” Brandi Noonkester said with a smile.

That's right, “blessed.” This is Lake County after all, where about one in five people can't find a job. The Noonkesters are happy to have a regular paycheck.

The economy in Lake County, never hearty in the best of times, has gotten so bad that on Monday, the Associated Press reported that it had the 14th worst economy in December among the nation's 3,141 counties with at least 25,000 inhabitants. It ranked worse than the notoriously devastated economies of Riverside County and Wayne County, Mich., home to Detroit.

“Lake County is one of those places that is in big trouble,” said David Gallo, a professor of economics at Chico State University. “I don't really see what is going to bring them back.”

In the past two years, unemployment has more than doubled, to 18.5 percent. The bankruptcy rate has tripled to 1.4 percent. And the foreclosure rate has quadrupled to 3.7 percent, according to the Economic Stress Index released Monday by the Associated Press. The index uses those three measurements to analyze U.S. county economies.

Those trends might continue, Gallo said.

“They don't have any advantages,” he said. “They don't have great natural resources. They don't have cheap labor. And they don't have access to great transportation.”

Plus, the county's tourism sector relies heavily on lower-income visitors, who have dramatically cut their spending, he said.

“You've got a clientele that has just been hammered by this recession,” he said.

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