Two years ago, Consuelo Andrade was living in a village with her grandparents in Michoacán, Mexico, where she regularly saw neighbors and acquaintances returning from time spent working in the United States. Their clothes were classy; some drove cars. She was mesmerized. No one, however, spoke about the work up north, and what it took to earn and save to buy such impressive goods.
Manuel Andrade was one of the men who returned to Michoacán. He eventually asked Consuelo to marry him and return to Tulare County, Calif., where he has picked oranges since 1979. Like countless immigrants before her, she expected, if not fortune, then certainly a better, more prosperous life in California than the poverty she knew in Mexico.
What she found was not quite what she envisioned.
Consuelo wears bright blue sweat pants, an olive green sweater and a bandana tucked back with bobby pins. At age 39, she appears weary. But at the sight of visitors, her smile is immediate and she ushers them into her yard. Her home is like all the others here on Road 216 in Tonyville: crumbling paint, shaky floors and stairs, gravel and weeds, dead tree branches, laundry lines, and plastic sheeting over windows to cut down on the drafts. Like many families in the Central Valley, the Andrades rely on bottled water for household use, due to nitrate contamination in the water that comes out of the tap. But the rent is affordable at $400 per month.
The language, the pace of life—it was all so strange, so disorienting, recalls Consuelo about her arrival in 2016. Picking oranges day in and day out has gotten easier, she says, now that Manuel bought her a ladder. She can fill up to three boxes with the fruit from eight trees. Ordinarily, she and Manuel would each earn $88 per day at the California minimum wage of $11 per hour, but with increasing vision problems and associated doctor visits, he only works half-days, compounding their economic fragility.
Neither Manuel nor Consuelo have heard of John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, so they wouldn’t know that the author set much of his tale right here in Tulare County. Next year, it will be 80 years since the book was published. Manuel has been here 40 of those 80 years, just like the countless second- and third-generation Latino farmworkers who make up a critical component of California’s economic backbone. They work long, hard hours, uncomplaining as they feed the state and the nation. Yet their income does not keep pace with ever increasing expenses, despite the fact that the minimum wage law governs their monthly incomes.
Why the federal government’s varied definitions of persistent poverty matter
The U.S. Census Bureau reported in July 2016 that Tulare County’s poverty rate is 24.7 percent. Twenty percent is considered high.
The government uses census data to define counties as officially “Persistently Poor” if 20 percent or more of their populations were living in poverty during the last 30 years, as measured by the 1980, 1990 and 2000 decennial censuses and the Census Bureau’s 2007-2011 American Community Survey. The definition affects at least 15 different spending programs within the Departments of Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Labor, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Transportation, the Treasury and the EPA.
This federal funding translates into life staples: wastewater systems and clean water delivery, decent low-income housing, literacy programs, economic development, roads and telecommunication infrastructure. The USDA, for example, has a mandate for 20 percent of its lending to go to persistent poverty areas. In addition, the new tax law creates “Opportunity Zones,” but this is based on census tracts, not counties. States can designate 25 percent of their “high need” census tracts as these opportunity zones, which translates into significant tax benefits to encourage investment there.