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In California's Rich Farm Country, How the Poor May Get Poorer

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Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

A January 2011 rally against cuts to budgets for state welfare and healtcare in front of Governer Jerry Brown's office in Los Angeles.

This week, Linda Garibay's monthly welfare check will drop by $43. The unemployed mother of two will struggle to afford clothes, soap and shampoo. She'll be squeezing by on an income of $490 per month, all of which comes from welfare, and spending it all on shared rent for her sister's apartment and diapers and clothes for her kids. She's trying to find a job, but says she's had no success since a clothing store fired her last year. "Times are hard," says Garibay, 25, outside the welfare office in Visalia, California. "You apply for jobs and no one calls you back."

Garibay is not the exception in Tulare, the Central Valley county where Visalia is located. The county of flat farmland and rolling hills is the second-largest agricultural producer in the U.S. Its fruit, vegetables and dairy feed a good chunk of the nation and are exported all over the world. Paradoxically, many of those who produce those goods are on food stamps. Around one-third of the county receives some form of government aid, the highest percentage in the state. Twenty-three percent of the population lives in poverty, far above the state and national averages of around 14%.

Much of that population could sink even deeper into poverty when $11 billion in budget cuts passed by Governor Jerry Brown and the state legislature begin to take effect Friday. Those cuts will reduce monthly welfare checks by 8% across the board and lower the total number of months people can receive assistance. "They get hit twice," says John Davis, director of the county's health and human services agency. This comes after budget cuts in previous years have already gutted a Tulare program for the elderly, closed mental health clinics, shrunk a child welfare program and eliminated 400 jobs in Davis' agency. "We're putting this on the backs of the poor and the elderly," Davis says. "None of these populations have a constituency large enough or vocal enough to make noise."

Sacramento may soon go for even more. The legislature is aiming to pass another budget before the fiscal year ends on June 30 after the governor vetoed a plan lawmakers approved last week. Brown and the Democratic majority want to extend expiring taxes to plug the gap, which the Republicans have so far opposed. "The tax extensions to me are just a crutch to keep from doing the right thing," says Assemblywoman Connie Conway, the Republican minority leader whose district includes most of Tulare. "It's not a stable way of doing a budget." While negotiations are focused on those taxes and a pension reform and spending cap advocated by Republicans, the final budget will likely include cuts to higher education and social services because the vetoed plan included them, says Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse Unruh Institute of Politics at the University of Southern California. "If the Democrats put up the votes for those cuts, you could assume that they will tolerate them going forward," he says.

The cuts that were already approved will exacerbate the effects of a sour economy. There are signs of a struggling population in Visalia. The health and human services agency anticipated so much foot traffic that it put the welfare office in a building that formerly housed a supermarket. Boarded up stores and lots for sale are scattered about one largely Hispanic area. "If this isn't a depression I don't know what is," says Jean Rousseau, the county's administrative officer. "If you have a job and your paycheck has been reduced significantly, you're probably doing pretty good."

The construction industry is still hurting in the county since the national housing downtown, taking away an alternative for people seeking employment outside of the struggling agricultural industry. Sales and property tax revenue have taken a hit, dropping discretionary revenue for public safety by 11% in the past two years and leaving vacant positions at the sheriff's office. Rousseau says he's concerned that could lead to more crime. Other state functions such as the auditor's office, the agricultural commission and public works have seen a 20% cut.

Budget cuts are hurting education too, which makes it harder for the unemployed to go back to school. Tulare's College of the Sequoias will see a 9% reduction in overall funding for next school year, which has the school making cuts everywhere it can, says Bill Scroggins, the school's president. Summer school is cancelled, crews aren't cleaning rooms as often, the library is no longer open on Saturdays, and some teaching and management positions have been eliminated. Worst of all, the number of classes being offered has been reduced by 15%. The total student body is smaller this year, and 6,700 people are on waiting lists for classes. "That's just a reflection of the unmet demand that we could meet if we had the resources to offer more classes," Scroggins says.

Back outside the welfare office, Jon Martinez waits his turn to get emergency food stamps. Clutching a copy of Shakespeare plays, he says he has experience in cooking, landscaping and construction, and still can't find a job. He's been scraping by doing freelance body piercings and using food stamps. He doesn't have his own place to live, and rotates among his friends' apartments. "I'm technically homeless," Martinez says. "It's so rough right now. I'm thinking of relocating it's so bad." The legislature could make it even worse come Friday.