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Train tracks just outside of Corcoran, Calif., Dec. 10, 2010. Federal and state authorities have committed some $5.5 billion to a high-speed rail network, which will connect San Francisco, Los Angeles, San Diego and Sacramento and other major California cities, running through the state's farm-rich Central Valley. (Jim Wilson/The New York Times)

Economist: In the Appalachia of the West, the same old problems

Away from the California of the popular imagination, far from the beaches and glamour of Los Angeles and the technological innovations of Silicon Valley, sits the Central Valley, a 450-mile stretch of mainly agricultural flatlands enclosed by mountains to the east and west.

The valley's geographical seclusion has bred other forms of disconnect. Here you encounter habits, such as listening to country music and voting Republican, that are virtually extinct in the rest of the state.

This isolation is anything but splendid, however. A 2011 California human-development report gave the San Joaquin Valley, the more populous part of the Central Valley, roughly the same score as West Virginia. Life expectancy is low, crime rates are high and the air is dreadful, if gradually improving. A 2010 report from the Milken Institute, a think tank, found three San Joaquin Valley cities among the 10 least-educated in the country. Joblessness, long the scourge of the valley, is keeping its grip.

Locals hate being told by outsiders that they live in "the Appalachia of the West," but in the same breath acknowledge that it's true.

For decades, the fertile soils of the valley, which provide about 40 percent of America's fresh produce, have attracted workers from poorer lands, from the dust-bowl Okies of the 1930s to the Mexicans and Central Americans who dominate today's agricultural labor force. By one estimate, 90 percent of the valley's farm workers are in the United States illegally. More than one-fifth of all jobs in the Central Valley are linked to agriculture.

More recently, Californians and other Americans have flocked to the region, sucked in by low home prices and low living costs. That helped inflate a bubble that popped in 2007-2008, but the state still forecasts that the population of the San Joaquin Valley will more than double, to 8.2 million, by 2060. That will create fresh challenges for public services, employment and, particularly, infrastructure - hence the need, officials say, for a statewide, high-speed rail link.

A journey through the valley makes the difficulties clear.

At the southern tip of the San Joaquin Valley lies Kern County. This is oil land, and the spoils of the commodity boom have brought an optimism entirely absent from communities farther north. Pumpjacks nod tirelessly, as they have since the late 19th century, in the large oil fields outside Bakersfield, the county seat.

Business leaders enthuse about the possibilities of fracking the Monterey shale, a vast oil formation, and of the solar and wind farms that dot nearby mountains and plains. Bakersfield is one of America's fastest-growing cities, and few locals hesitate to contrast its fortunes with those of the rest of the valley.

Despite its energy riches, however, Kern County shares many of its neighbors' troubles. A quarter of the population lives in poverty. At 11.5 percent, unemployment is close to the regional average. Far more people toil in low-paying farming jobs than in the energy sector. A common complaint, as elsewhere in the valley, is the failure of local schools and colleges to attend to the needs of local employers. Kern County has been a major agricultural center for decades, but it took the local university until 2011 to begin offering relevant courses.

Businesses throughout the valley find it hard to recruit locally. Ambitious young people tend to leave. Among those who stay, a lack of basic skills and high levels of drug use mean that employers struggle to fill even menial positions. Poor schooling is a chronic problem in the valley, but it's an even worse one nowadays, when many manufacturing and agricultural jobs require more skills than before.

Such concerns loom large in Fresno, the valley's biggest city. The Census Bureau predicts that one in six graduates will leave the place. Unemployment in Fresno County stands at 12.3 percent. Crime and homelessness are rampant, and visitors are warned not to stay in the city center.

Mark Arax, a local author, recently asked readers of the Fresno Bee how anyone could "breathe its foul air, ignore its shared poverty, abide its corruptions." Regretfully, readers tended to agree with him.

Still, there are signs of hope if you seek them. They include the energetic Mayor Ashley Swearingen and the business leaders behind the Boomerang Project, an optimistic attempt to inspire Fresnan emigrants to return. Business groups and investors speak hopefully about the city's strength in water-use technology, given the complexity of the surrounding irrigation channels.

"It's not going to be the next Silicon Valley," says Fred Mendez of Rabobank, a community bank. "But there is real opportunity there."

Sixty miles northwest of Fresno sits Merced, where the foreclosure crisis struck with particular ferocity. In 2009, the city had the third-highest foreclosure rate in the country, and home prices fell by two-thirds. The city is ringed by half-built housing developments such as Bellevue Ranch, where handsome houses with green lawns and SUVs in the driveways share space with vacant brown lots baked hard by the valley sun.

Drive only 2 miles east and you reach the glittering campus of the University of California at Merced, the most recent addition to one of America's best public university systems. When it opened in 2005, locals hoped it would provide the region with an economic jolt. The housing crash dashed those dreams, but the campus has begun to forge industry links in areas such as biotech and solar energy, and spin-offs may follow.

The story behind UC Merced also shows the valley at its worst, however. Rather than celebrating the arrival of a first-class seat of learning in the region, the backers of competing proposals in Fresno and Madera grumbled and sniped. A similar dynamic is alive today as cities scrap to be the place where the high-speed trains will be inspected and repaired.

"You often have competition rather than cooperation," says Carol Whiteside, who as president of the Great Valley Center, a research institute, has worked on regional infrastructure projects.

The potential benefits of high-speed rail, she hopes, will foster a more collaborative spirit.

If the valley is to pick itself up, that probably is one necessary ingredient. A renewed focus on education, particularly among Latinos, is another. The valley is unlikely ever to enjoy the wealth of its coastal cousins. By focusing on its advantages, however, especially in agricultural industries, and acknowledging its limits, it may be able to offer its children a brighter future than their parents had.

From the Economist magazine.

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