s
s
Sections
Sections
Subscribe
You've read 5 of 15 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read 10 of 15 free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
You've read all of your free articles this month.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting at 99 cents per month.
Already a subscriber?
We've got a special deal for readers like you.
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Thanks for reading! Why not subscribe?
Get unlimited access to PressDemocrat.com, the eEdition and our mobile app starting 99 cents per month and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?
Want to keep reading? Subscribe today!
Ooops! You're out of free articles. Starting at just 99 cents per month, you can keep reading all of our products and support local journalism.
Already a subscriber?

The Redwood Empire Food Bank last month provided food for 78,000 people in need, Staff Writer Guy Kovner reported. The number represents an increase of 8,000 people over October 2009.

The U.S. economy began to grow again in the summer of 2009, ostensibly signaling the end of the longest recession since the Great Depression.

Just don't tell the 78,000 hometown residents who don't have enough money to feed themselves and their families..

From hard experience, we have learned this recovery is going to take a long time. We've also learned that jobs and economic development are no longer an abstraction, no longer just a slogan on a chamber of commerce brochure.

People are still hurting, and the drumbeat of bad news continues. The unemployment rate in Sonoma County lingers at 10.2 percent. Lenders have foreclosed on 1,500 homes this year, and countless folks are upside-down in their houses, meaning they owe more than their homes are worth.

Ursuline High School, a local institution for 130 years, announced last week it is closing its doors at the end of the school year.

And tax revenues continue to fall, devastating government services. Budget experts last week said the state deficit is twice as large as was previously feared. Facing a $350 million shortfall, a regional transit agency scaled back its plans, only two years after promising voters what it can no longer deliver. Local school officials began planning for the latest rounds of program reductions. They're not cutting into bone anymore; they're removing arms and legs.

What the hell is going on here?

The economy of Sonoma County "is a microcosm of California and of the United States," explained Robert Eyler, chairman of the Economics Department at Sonoma State University and director of the Center for Regional Economic Analysis.

Eyler talked about finances, labor and goods. When financial markets failed, people stopped using debt, jobs disappeared, buying stopped and consumer confidence went away.

"Consumers haven't bounced back, so labor hasn't bounced back," he explained.

Eyler said economists disagree about whether this is a "structural" or a "cyclical" recession. "If it is structural, we're in for a long, slow haul ... It's going to be slow, and it's not going to have the same punch (as earlier recoveries)."

For individual communities, he said, some of the best job development models combine investment, innovation and public-private partnerships. Unfortunately, "local governments' hands are tied by Sacramento," and we haven't seen much leadership out of state government lately.

So, what does he expect the Sonoma County unemployment rate will be in three years?

"Seven and a half percent," he answered.

For a county that remembers when a low jobless rate seemed a fact of life — it was under 4 percent in 2006 — this is a sobering number.

The current adversity challenges a state that came to expect prosperity, according to Ben Stone, director of the Sonoma County Economic Development Board. "Californians have not known bad times since the Depression. The whole state expects ongoing prosperity, and that's just not possible anymore."

Economists disagree about whether the unemployment rate is a fair measure of economic adversity. For example, the statistic doesn't count people who have stopped looking for jobs, people who work part-time or people now working in jobs that pay less than the jobs they held five years ago.

Stone said the combined rate of unemployed and "under employed" might be closer to 17 percent.

Progress has been made on eliminating two obstacles to job development, according to Stone. While it means a loss of wealth for every property owner, the collapse of real estate values has served to make housing more affordable. And transportation improvements over the last five years have made it easier to move goods and services in and out of Sonoma County.

But the third leg of the stool, an educated work force, is not guaranteed. A 2008 Moody's study conducted for the Sonoma County Innovation Council warns that too many kids are dropping out of school, leaving themselves without the skills required by 21st century jobs.

As the economy recovers — slowly — Stone reported that he is now hearing from businesses looking to grow. The problem is, "the good businesses can't get a loan. They're ready to expand, but the banks can't lend them the money."

The easy rules that led to bad loans and the real estate crash have given way to restrictions that it make difficult for reliable businesses to get credit.

At the Redwood Empire Food Bank, Executive Director David Goodman watches the human side of all this.

"What's happening in our economy and in our county isn't lost on anybody," he said, "Everyone has been affected."

Goodman talked about the shame and embarrassment that people feel when they are obliged to ask for help. "They call up when they're living out of a bag of rice," he said, "or all they have to feed their daughter for dinner is a bag of marshmallows."

If you're envisioning a guy with a cardboard sign," you would be wrong.

Said Goodman, "The people who come through that door — they look just like you and me."

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. E-mail him at golispd@gmail.com.