Unemployment, foreclosure and agriculture this week
The great theoreticians of the economy that ate Merced speak in lovingly of "creative destruction." I suppose, from the vantage point of a tenured chair in a university economics department committed to free-market ideology, it all must seem terribly exciting. The public and elected officials (currently enjoying the lowest popularity ratings since such records began), may be excused for not fully embracing our culture's universal approval of all that is "creative." The destruction is not a new problem. The modern approach began with the passage of the Poor Law during the reign of QueenElizabeth I, back when Shakespeare was writing plays.
Merced's official unemployment rate tied its record high in January, 21.7 percent. It will soon set a new record because unemployment can be expected to get worse as winter wears on in Merced. The official unemployment rate presents only the lowest, most politically acceptable figure. More complex measures, used prior to the Clinton Administration, including the number of discouraged workers and part-time/barely part-time workers -- suggest a figure closer to 40 percent, and rising. We are not talking about west side farm labor depots like Mendota, made famous by the brilliant disinformation campaign of west side agribusiness. We are talking about a Valley county seat, one among several, each coping with massive unemployment, foreclosure rates, and rising homeless populations. To say that either the lower or the higher figure are "political numbers" is to say no more than that they are created by man to serve different interests: the lower number by the interests of the regime in power; the higher number by the general social interest.
Meanwhile, state and local governments cannot offer adequate health and human services for the number of citizens in this town and county suffering from the "creative destruction" visited upon us all by finance, insurance and real estate special interests, backed 100 percent by politicians at every level of government and by local, regional and national mainstream media.
We were fascinated by the comments made recently by Andy Krotik, Voice of the Merced County Real Estate Underworld:
Atwater Realtor Andy Krotik said the still-high foreclosure rate has created two local phenomena: an all-time high in the affordability rate, and super-short windows to buy.
The sentence presents the two most basic ways to get screwed in any business deal: the promise of a low price if you act immediately. Yep. You just rush on down and see Andy, put your money down and don't worry about the small print. In fact, it would take you and your lawyer longer than Andy wants to allow you even to read the small print.
Ignore the latest hype. It's just another invitation from the Merced Real Estate Underworld to dig your own grave in another speculative boom.
It is reported that Merced County farmers will receive drought relief for their past sufferings. We can understand how low dairy and almond prices have hurt farmers but Merced farmers received all their water on the east side of the county and close to all of it on the west side. This relief looks like pork-vending by Sen. Barbara Boxer, running for reelection this year. The San Francisco Girsl (Boxer, Feinstein and Pelosi) may also be trying to buy a Blue Dog vote for health reform. There is no doubt that the vote of Rep. Dennis Cardoza, Pimlico Kid-Merced, is always for sale. While the most vulnerable people in the county received cutbacks in all health and human services, most of these same farmers saw the county pick up the Williamson Act property-tax subvention when it was cut from the state budget.
Our increasingly lawless county government is bought and sold by rich peasants, subsidized by a maze of different programs, including subsidized water, and employ some of the most impoverished workers in America, many lacking the elemental protections of US citizenship. The innovation in production, processing and marketing that once made Valley agriculture exciting, energetic and forward-looking, has given way to the perennial problems of mono-crop overproduction, land concentration, water politics and social reaction. Agribusiness, having devoured farming, is now rotting from the inside out, dragging down the entire regional economy with it. Although of uniquely enormous scale, it cannot provide decent wages, year-round work and a stable economy. As time goes by, farmers value their real estate more than their production. Its leaders are longer on realtor-like hype in which the sanctity of the family farmer takes the place of the sanctity of home ownership, and shorter than ever on solutions to agricultural problems and the problems agriculture creates for the rest of us. The contradictions of our current Valley agricultural economy are eating us all alive. For example, there has been remarkable genetic innovation, the mapping of the genomes of crops as well as its predecessor, crop cloning. But if there is one thing more sociopathic that a free market in water, it is the corporate business model for genetically engineered food crops.
Badlands Journal editorial board
U.S. aid sought for California drought...Michael Doyle, Bee Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- California's specialty crop farmers could get help from a $150 million emergency aid amendment added Tuesday to a larger jobs and unemployment package.
The aid will flow to fruit and vegetable farmers who work in the 24 California counties that have been designated as primary disaster areas because of drought. These include many Central Valley counties, among them Kings and Merced. Fresno and Tulare counties were not among those designated last September as primary disaster areas.
Though the amendment does not specify California as a recipient, the state is expected to receive a high percentage of the specialty-crop funding because it dominates the nation's fruit and vegetable production.
"Growers in California have experienced significant crop losses due to an extended period of drought, and these funds will help many get through these tough times," Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer said.
Boxer, who is running for re-election this year, worked with Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein to expand a specialty crop provision that originally was written solely for farmers hurt by excessive rainfall. They convinced the chairwoman of the Senate Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry Committee, Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., to modify the farm amendment by including drought as an eligible condition.
Lincoln also is running for re-election this year.
"This is especially welcome news to farmers in the Central Valley, where drought cost nearly $600 million in lost crops last year and forced the fallowing of more than 400,000 acres of farmland," Feinstein said.
The specialty crop provision is part of roughly $2 billion in overall agricultural assistance, included in a package with a total estimated price tag approaching $150 billion.
The other agricultural provisions include direct payment to growers of subsidized crops such as cotton and rice, emergency loan assistance for poultry producers and aid for livestock and aquaculture producers.
The Senate is expected to approve the package of tax-break extensions, unemployment benefits and other provisions this week.
Merced County jobless rate ties record...JONAH OWEN LAMB
Merrced County's unemployment rate skyrocketed in January to 21.7 percent, matching the county's highest rate ever recorded in February 1996.
The grim numbers were released Wednesday by the state's Employment Development Department.
The county's December's unemployment rate was 19.8 percent.
The most dire unemployment rate in recent years -- 20.2 percent -- was back in March 2009. The new numbers make Merced County, with 23,100 unemployed, the fourth-worst county in the state for January.
Pedro Vargas, the county's labor market analyst for the EDD, said the county lost 3,600 jobs in January. The loss, said Vargas, was from a "higher than expected loss in farm jobs, and also local government cut down on jobs."
The county lost 1,900 farm jobs in January and 1,700 non-farm jobs. Of the nonfarm losses, 600 came from government, 500 of those from local government, according to the EDD. The county's unemployment rate comes from a monthly survey of county employers conducted by the state.
Meanwhile, the state's January unemployment rate -- 12.5 percent -- was higher than the national average of 9.7 percent, even as the state saw the creation of 32,500 new jobs in that month.
While county and state numbers are from January, federal unemployment numbers are a month ahead.
Nationally, the unemployment rate hovered at 9.7 percent in February, which saw only a slight change (-36,000) from January. In all, 14.9 million Americans were officially unemployed in February.
The ranks of the county's unemployed may be higher than the survey indicates, as is true with the national and state unemployment numbers. None include workers discouraged and no longer looking for work or part-time workers, so the real number of people without full- time work may be higher than reported.
For instance, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in February there were 2.5 million Americans categorized as "marginally attached" to the work force, since they had not looked for work in the last four weeks.
In addition to discouraged and marginal workers, 8.8 million people nationwide didn't have full-time employment in February. If you add these numbers to the 14.9 million officially unemployed, the number of people with little or no work would be 26.2 million or roughly 17 percent of the American work force.
Mixed real estate news for Merced County
Foreclosures are down but still high as market improves...DANIELLE E. GAINES
A pair of at-odds reports about the local housing market were released Wednesday.
The good news: local foreclosure activity was down last month, compared to one year ago, and Merced no longer leads the state's counties in the number of foreclosure filings counted.
The mixed news: Merced was listed as a small housing market expected to perform the best this year in a forecast created by Local Market Monitor. The company offers investors local market risk intelligence based on how high they think local housing prices will climb.
The company's most recent home price data shows that many of the previously poor- performing housing markets, including several in California, could be on the oad to recovery. These markets had consistently been among the worst markets nationwide because of long-term speculative buying and inflated housing construction, according to a release from Local Market Monitor.
Merced County, which posted high foreclosure rates calculated for the last few years, took a fall in the company's most recent data. The county saw 688 foreclosure filings in February 2010, down 10 percent from last month, and nearly 40 percent from February 2009.
Merced is now ranked sixth statewide in the overall rate of foreclosure filings; Stanislaus County jumped to the top spot.
RealtyTrac's filing rate includes borrowers who are at least three months late on mortgage payments, houses slated for sale at public auction, and houses that have gone back to the bank.
Atwater Realtor Andy Krotik said the still-high foreclosure rate has created two local phenomena: an all-time high in the affordability rate, and super-short windows to buy. Seventy-nine percent of county residents who have a job can qualify for a home mortgage, given the lower prices, he said. But homes are flying off the market; the average number of days it takes to sell a home was 35 days in January. (It took 76 days one year ago.)
Melissa Franks is one of the many local past-due borrowers who are trying to save their homes. She's been battling to modify her mortgage for more than two years and has been through five modification trials through her bank, she said.
Franks' house on the west side of town is valued at $78,000, but she owes $242,000, she said. Her mortgage payments take up 50 percent of her monthly income, and she's had to put off home repairs to clear out mold and leaky pipes, she added.
"There's no way I can make cuts. I've got to feed my kids, I've got to clothe them," she said about her son and daughter. "I need to have a car for work, so I can't cut that."
Franks hired a company to help her lower her mortgage payments, she said.
It is illegal in California for a company to take payments in advance for foreclosure, modification or short sale workouts. Such fraudulent offers should be reported to the Merced County District Attorney's real estate fraud unit at 1944 M Street, Merced, or by phone at (209) 385-7383. Spanish speakers can call (209) 385-7383, ext. 4229.
Residents facing foreclosure should call a foreclosure avoidance counselor approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. A local provider, Clearpoint Credit Counseling Solutions, can be reached at (209) 723-3572.