Past the Drought: New Report Examines Inequities in California’s Central Valley

By Aisa Villarosa, Associate Director of Policy and Research

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Take your pick of produce from any grocery aisle in the nation, and it’s likely to come from California’s Central Valley.

The Central Valley contains less than one percent of total farmland in the United States; and yet, the region grows nearly half of the country’s fruits, vegetables, and nuts, carrying a total annual value of over $33 billion.[1] This abundance is achieved through the year-round efforts of the Valley’s agricultural workers — thousands of women, men, and children who toil through scorching days and cold nights, with little pay or job protection.

Insight’s new report, Past the Drought: Overcoming Barriers to Economic Security in California’s Central Valley, spotlights how, despite decades of invaluable contributions to the nation’s economic growth, the Valley is the poorest region in California — with nearly 4 out of every 10 households unable to afford basic needs. Using Insight’s Self-Sufficiency Standard,[2] the report highlights key findings and offers recommendations for change so that all Central Valley residents can have a chance to thrive.

Contributing to one of the most diverse regions in the country, the Central Valley’s workforce echoes its deep multicultural identity: From early Maidu tribes to waves of Europeans, Latinx, and Asians that followed, over five centuries of natives, immigrants, and refugees built their homes and businesses in the Valley. Today, the majority of migrant farm workers across California and within the Valley are people of color, largely from Latin America. And yet, an examination of Insight’s 2018 Self-Sufficiency Standard shows that many of the very people who make America’s agricultural wealth possible struggle, day by day, to put food on their own tables:

  • Nearly 40 percent of households in the Valley — over 180,000 — cannot afford basic needs. Economic outcomes are worse for people of color, women-led households, and immigrants. Black and Latinx households are more than twice as likely as Whites to live in poverty.
  • For the most part, median wages for the Valley’s top 10 most common jobs fall short of or barely make the minimum amount needed to cover living costs. The vast majority of these jobs are within the agricultural sector, where workers often labor long hours in short-term, physically demanding positions.
  • Central Valley communities with large concentrations of Latinx residents experience higher rates of poverty as well as poorer educational and health outcomes. For example, residents of Fresno’s majority-Latinx neighborhoods live 20 years less, on average, compared to more affluent sections of the same city with proportionally fewer Latinx households.[3]

Put forward together with the California Asset Building Coalition (CABC), policy recommendations in Past the Drought highlight local and statewide strategies to support Central Valley residents. For example, expanding California’s earned income tax credit and Medicaid program to include more immigrants and their families would help unlock access to health, wellness, and economic stability for thousands.

Without immediate action, far too many Central Valley residents will continue to grapple with keeping their lights on, caring for loved ones, and making ends meet — especially when volatile forces such as climate change, drought, and interruptions to government services can escalate the uncertainty of support programs, housing, and availability of jobs.

Nearly half a century after activists like César Chávez, Philip Vera Cruz, and Dolores Huerta championed farm workers’ rights, Central Valley residents — and all Californians, regardless of race, gender, and citizenship — are entitled to live, work, and achieve their basic needs.

For more findings on the Self-Sufficiency Standard and how California’s families are faring across the state, check out Insight’s 2018 report, The Cost of Being Californian.

  1. Of California’s top 10 most profitable agricultural counties, all but three are located in the Central Valley. California Agricultural Statistics Review 2017–18, available at
  2. An alternative measure to the Federal Poverty Line (FPL), the Self-Sufficiency Standard is a “bare bones” budget that takes into account families of various sizes. Visit to explore the Standard further.
  3. Statistic from the San Joaquin Valley “Place Matters” initiative, a regional collaborative highlighting health inequities. Capitman, John. “Equity in the San Joaquin Valley: A New Approach.” Fresno State University. May 2010.

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The Insight Center for Community Economic Development’s mission is to help people and communities become, and remain, economically secure.

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