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As Parts of California Flourish, The Imperial Valley Withers


California is home to some of the wealthiest places in the country and some of the poorest. Among them is the Imperial Valley in the hot desert country east of San Diego. The county is home to some huge rich farms growing crops such as spinach, potatoes and cauliflower. But the area also has what the Labor Department calls the highest unemployment rate in the U.S. NPR's Jim Zarroli reports.

JIM ZARROLI, BYLINE: At the community center in the little town of Heber, volunteers unload boxes of food and stack them around the room. Once a month, the county sets up food banks throughout the valley. And in Heber, some 250 families turn out for free meat, beans and milk. Among those lining up is 57-year-old Graciela Pandoro (ph). She had to quit her last job at Walmart because of poor circulation in her legs. And she's been looking for a new job for at least two years.

GRACIELA PANDORO: I'm applying everywhere and just always say, leave the application over here and we call you.

ZARROLI: But no one calls back. She and her grown son live off the money her husband makes as a handyman. Outside, a long line of people snakes around a parking lot waiting to get in and pick up food. The average high in June is 103 degrees, and many carry umbrellas to protect themselves against the white hot desert sun. Imperial County is among the most fertile agricultural areas in the nation, and many of the people here were once farm workers. Now, they're mostly too old to work in the fields. And Alva Sanchez (ph) who oversees this food pantry says the only jobs available tend to be in fast food and retail.

ALVA SANCHEZ: But we have a lot of stores closing down right now. I mean, Sears closed down. We have other stores closing at the mall that had employed a lot of these families. And they're out jobs.

ZARROLI: Heber is part of the metropolitan El Centro area, which the Labor Department says has the dubious distinction of having the country's highest unemployment rate. It was 16.2% in April. That's in sharp contrast to the national rate, which is 3.6%. To visit El Centro is to see a place that seems worlds away from the glamorous boomtowns of California's coast. Tourists don't tend to walk its hot, dusty streets. Among the biggest local employers is Customs and Border Protection. There are also two state prisons outside town, and city Councilwoman Cheryl Viegas-Walker says El Centro was delighted to get them.

CHERYL VIEGAS-WALKER: When everybody else was saying not in my backyard, the whole NIMBY thing, don't dare cite those prisons here, we're like, please bring the jobs here.

ZARROLI: Walker grew up in Washington state, but her husband was raised in town, and he came back home to join a law firm.

VIEGAS-WALKER: Prior to moving here, I always thought the best thing about El Centro was seeing it in my rearview mirror.

ZARROLI: But today, Walker has very much become a cheerleader for the city. She likes the small-town feel, the fact that she can drive six minutes and get to work. And unlike much of California, it's affordable to live here. You can buy a nice new house on a palm-lined street in the better part of town for around $200,000.

VIEGAS-WALKER: We could have a young couple earning minimum wage and be able to afford to live here in El Centro. And that to me is a huge plus.

ZARROLI: Walker and other officials here believe the jobless rate is lower than the Labor Department claims. El Centro has a huge number of seasonal workers who file for unemployment in the city when they lose their jobs. And town officials say that skews the jobs numbers. They also say California's recent minimum wage increase has meant they've lost jobs to Arizona and Mexico. But Walker acknowledges there aren't enough jobs, especially good ones, and people with college degrees tend to move away.

VIEGAS-WALKER: We do have a brain drain. My two sons will not return to the valley. They won't come back.

ZARROLI: Many of those who remain are standing on the bottom rung of the economic ladder. The poverty rate in the city of El Centro is almost 25%. Jessica Solorio grew up in the area. A few years ago, she noticed homeless people gathered in a city park. She made a meal of rice and teriyaki chicken and took it to them.

JESSICA SOLORIO: Me and my friend fed the homeless one night, and we posted it on Facebook. And then we asked who was going to take the next night, and from there, we've just been feeding the homeless every night.

ZARROLI: Today, she runs a homeless drop-in center called Spread the Love. Every day, people come in to sleep on cots or just to sit in the air conditioning. Among those stopping by today is Henry Lee Poston (ph). He has long gray hair and a craggy face that make him look a lot older than his 63 years. Raised in Oklahoma, he's never gotten used to the Imperial Valley's scorching heat.

HENRY LEE POSTON: One thing - it's too dang hot here. I have blackouts sometimes because of the heat. And there's nothing I can do about it. I got to stay out there in it 24 hours a day, day and night.

ZARROLI: Poston says he's done years in prison for burglaries, and he spent much of his life on the streets. But he still applies for work whenever he can.

POSTON: I've tried and tried and tried and tried. They keep telling me the same thing. You're not socially acceptable, whatever the hell that means.

ZARROLI: If he ever finds a job, he says, he has one goal - he hopes to make enough money to leave the valley and go back home. Jim Zarroli, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jim Zarroli is an NPR correspondent based in New York. He covers economics and business news.