Poverty rate soars in Valley amid downturn

By Yesenia Amaro / yamaro@mercedsunstar.comSeptember 20, 2012 

Ianthia Guy has been looking for a job for several months, but hasn't had any luck.

The 61-year-old relocated to Merced to live with her daughter after she lost her job in Oakland.

"I'm here with my daughter," she said. "Otherwise, it would be really, really hard. I have exhausted all of my unemployment. Now I'm just swimming to try to keep my head above the water."

Guy is not alone. Many other people across Merced County are struggling to make ends meet.

Merced County's poverty rate in 2011 rose to 27.4 percent from 23 percent in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau's American Community Survey, released earlier this week. The city of Merced saw its poverty rate jump to 30 percent from 23.8 percent during the same year.

During the same period, Merced County's median family income decreased to $43,289 from $47,222, according to the data.

The unemployment rate in Merced was 17.5 percent in July. Out of a work force of 106,400, 18,600 were unemployed, according to the Employment Development Department.

All those negative economic numbers translate into human misery.

Employment agency has been active

Michelle Allison, program manager at the Merced office of Worknet of Merced County, said the agency is seeing a lot more customers since 2009. Many of them had been employed on the same job for 15 to 20 years, she said.

Still, Allison said she thought the county's poverty rate increase would be higher, given the number of clients the agency serves on a daily basis -- between 100 to 125.

"You have a lot of foreclosures, a lot of people who have relocated here, and veterans who are returning," she said.

The agency serves three primary groups: youth, dislocated workers and adults who are trying to enter the work force for the first time, Allison said.

The largest number of people seeking services are dislocated workers, she said. "It's just the fact that we are seeing so many layoffs," she said. "We've seen a lot more of these in the last couple of years."

Monty Whitaker, 49, was laid off from a job in Fresno about a year ago. The business downsized because of the struggling economy, he said.

Whitaker, who now lives in Merced, said he's talked to many people about potential jobs, and although some seem promising, none have come to fruition.

"My girlfriend basically supports me," he said.

Many of those who have not moved in with friends or family end up at places such as the D Street Shelter and the Merced County Rescue Mission.

Su Briggs, deputy director of programs for the Merced County Community Action Agency, which runs the D Street Shelter, said it has had to turn people away. "We are limited by the fact that we can only take 60 per night," she said.

However, in the winter they set up extra cots to accommodate more people.

The agency is averaging three calls a day inquiring about its rental-assistance program, Briggs said.

The program helps people who are going to lose their home, or can't pay rent or a mortgage, she said. "I'm hearing from many more families for that program," she said.

But the federal grant that used to support the program dried up, Spriggs said. The agency is supposed to receive around $19,000 from the city of Merced at the end of October to help people within the city who meet certain qualifications.

Stan Thurston, Merced's mayor, said the economy is still struggling in this area. "There still hasn't been a significant increase in jobs," he said.

Some of the increase in poverty rates could be the result of people in the area having exhausted their unemployment benefits, he said.

The city is hoping to adjust its development fees to be more competitive with neighboring cities in attracting new businesses in hopes of creating more jobs, Thurston said.

The changes to the city's development fees are scheduled to be considered for approval next month, he said.

"Hopefully that will incentivize companies to move to Merced and have more jobs available," he said. "That's one of the plans."

Los Banos, meanwhile, has not charged impact fees since January to commercial or industrial developers who have pulled building permits.

Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County, said the county is trying to promote its "one-stop" development review center, which will streamline the permitting process for large companies, small businesses and residents. That will make it easier for potential businesses to expand or relocate to Merced, he said.

"We'll change the culture and create an environment in which the private sector can bring jobs and opportunities to our residents," he said.

"It's about improving the attitude, improving our relationship with the private sector and with the public that we serve."

Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209) 385-2482 or yamaro@mercedsunstar.com.

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