BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KERO) — Being one of the nation's largest agriculture and energy-producing regions, Kern County is a California powerhouse. But despite this, Kern worker wages are low and have been dropping for decades when inflation is taken into consideration. A new study by the University of California Merced Community and Labor Center funded by the state looked into the county's agriculture industry and what issues need to be addressed.
Kern County is changing. The study breaks down who lives here and how they make a living. Data shows the household population growth from 2000 to 2009, which is higher than the rest of the San Joaquin Valley and even the state as a whole. Of that population, the median age is 31, making it the third youngest among California counties.
In terms of diversity, more than half of the county is now Latino which is higher than the rest of the San Joaquin Valley and again other counties in the state.
But despite a growth in population and the workforce, wages have not kept up.
"That Kern workers' earnings adjusted for 2019 dollars, adjusted for inflation, actually declined between 1979 and 2019," explained Dr. Edward Flores, the faculty director at the UC Merced Community and Labor Center. "There were a few counties in California where this was the case, but Kern workers' earnings were singularly worst among all California counties."
Dr. Flores points to the 13 percent decline in Kern workers' median wages from 1979 to 2019. They found that in 1979 the median income was a little over $34,000, but by 2019 the median income was $30,000 while in other parts of the San Joaquin Valley, and even the state, that median income had increased.
The study also found work inequities.
From 2015 to 2019, it found that 48 percent of Southeast Bakersfield workers lived below a living wage while those living in West Bakersfield had a better rate but it was still lower than the rest of the state outside the Central Valley.
"Large scale industrial productions were modeled after southern plantation," says Dr. Flores. "We know that there is great inequalities and that these inequalities have a lot to do with racial inequities."
The study is part of a new work system the state has embraced called the High Road Model which looks for businesses that don’t just pay a living wage but offer growth opportunities for their workers.
Aside from jobs and equity, the third pillar for the system is climate as they want to also focus on long-term environmentally sustainable jobs.
This goes hand in hand with a project already in the works in Kern County called B3K -- or Better Bakersfield and Boundless Kern -- that did a similar study in 2021 that looks at all local industries, not just agriculture.
"What our market assessment found was that only three in 10 workers in Kern County have a good or promising job. That is one that pays a middle-class wage, is a permanent job, offers healthcare benefits, and allows for more than self-sufficiency," said Justin Salters, a B3K spokesperson. "That means that 70 percent of our jobs don’t meet that category.
That is why they have identified key industries that can help change that.
"Advanced manufacturing, aerospace, energy and carbon management and business services. What we have found is that given our current labor pool, given the unique competitive opportunity and advantages of our region we have the greatest potential to get more quality jobs from those four industries than any other," says Salters.
They already have implementation teams for each of those industries which they hope will translate to 100,000 jobs by 2030.
"They are looking at what sectors are we growing, do we have the talented workforce, are we an innovative region with good infrastructure and a governance that brings us together," continued Salters. "If we can get all five of those right, we will have those 100,000 quality jobs and be able to reduce the number of families struggling to make ends meet in the next 10 years."
Meanwhile, the next step coming out of the UC Merced study will be engaging the community to talk about the findings and get their input on what the community wants to see change. They say community input will be key to seeing any real outcome.