A new labor market analysis by the Kern High Road Coalition (KHRC) found that Kern County’s economy has not produced shared prosperity in recent decades, as workers have experienced significant wage declines and inequality.
KHRC is a group of educators, researchers, community organizers, and labor representatives dedicated to identifying and supporting careers with competitive wages, benefits, long-term sustainability, and diversity in employment, which will ensure a robust renewable energy infrastructure in the Southern San Joaquin Valley.
In May 2022, the KHRC released a new labor market analysis titled “The Future of the State: Kern County’s Young, Growing, Diverse Population and Dynamic Economy” that revealed that Kern County occupies a unique position at the center of the state, at the forefront of its population growth, and in one of the nation’s largest agricultural and energy-producing regions.
“Future of the State uses data to tell an important story, that Kern County has not shared enough of its prosperity with its workers. The report is a call to action,” said Imelda Ceja-Butkiewicz, President of the Kern-Inyo-Mono Central Labor Council.
The analysis found that workers at the middle and bottom of the wage scale have lost ground in the past two decades, experiencing an annual wage decline of nearly 10 percent. Additionally, the report showed that in 2019, 40 percent of Kern County workers earned less than a living wage, which is defined as the amount needed to avoid consistent housing and food insecurity.
“Typically, policy is most responsible for the conditions we see among workers,” stated Doctor Edward Flores, the author of the Future of the State report, when asked about what leads to these types of earnings declines. “In the 1930s there was the New Deal that created a set of benefits for workers, like social security and unemployment. Our aim is to convene folks around the findings of this report to find out where there is interest in policies that can support workers and raise industry standards.”
During the same period, Kern’s economy fluctuated between extremes in terms of GDP per capita growth – it led the state from 2000 to 2009 at 35 percent growth in GDP per capita, but then shrank by 4.4 percent in the years since – the third-worst rate in the state.
The Future of the State highlighted data that showed that much of Kern’s economic expansion in the past two decades was due to population growth, which fueled a 51 percent increase in the labor market.
A key finding in the report revealed that Kern is one of the youngest counties in California. It has the state’s third-youngest median age (31), and fourth-highest rate of residents under the age of five (7.8 percent).
“This is a moment when an investment in Kern’s youth could really benefit the labor market down the road,” Dr. Flores claimed.
Kern County has a diverse population, with the fifth-highest Latino population in the state (55 percent) and one in five (20 percent) residents being immigrants. Currently, nearly one in three (31 percent) of workers aged 55-64 are migrants, yet of those aged 15-24 and entering the workforce, only 8 percent are migrants.
“Looking ahead, a young, diverse population will age into the workforce and dramatically
reshape the labor market,” the coalition stated in a press release. “High numbers of white and immigrant workers will exit the workforce, replaced by increasing numbers of native-born Latinx workers.”
KHRC is developing a strategy to bring high-quality jobs to Kern that address the numerous community needs that exist. The coalition is doing this by conducting research and public engagement to learn about areas of shared interest. Public meetings will be held where workers and community members will have the opportunity to engage in conversations about where investment is most needed.
“The findings in this report are dismal, but with ongoing community partnership led by the Kern High Road Coalition and funds hopefully coming in from the Community Economic Resilience Funds from the state, Kern County has an amazing opportunity ahead,” said Ingrid Brostrom, Assistant Director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE). “We cannot rely on business as usual but must center frontline environmental justice communities and rank and file union membership. Continuing on the same path will result in disastrous effects for the most vulnerable among us,” said Ingrid Brostrom, Assistant Director of the Center on Race, Poverty & the Environment (CRPE).
The Kern High Road Coalition is led by Bakersfield College, Kern Community College District, UC Merced Community and Labor Center, and the Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment and consists of numerous labor, business, and community-based organizations.
The coalition received the High Roads Training Partnership from the State of California, which hopes to simultaneously address urgent questions of income inequality, economic competitiveness, and climate change through regional skills strategies designed to support economically and environmentally resilient communities across the state.