The new Appalachia

California’s San Joaquin Valley really may be the new Appalachia after all, a new congressional study suggests.

The travails sound familiar. Poverty is high, education is low and social needs abound. But the 365-page regional report card, one of the most comprehensive of its kind, also leaves unanswered what may be the most enduring Capitol Hill question.

That is: What must Congress do now, given the immensity of the problem?

“By a wide range of indicators, the San Joaquin Valley is … one of the most economically depressed regions of the United States,” the Congressional Research Service concluded in its final version of a report begun about a year ago.

Even notoriously poor Appalachia fares better in some respects. Per-capita income is lower in the Valley’s eight counties than in the 68-county area known as Central Appalachia. Predictably, but grimly, the Valley’s public-assistance rates are higher than Appalachia’s.

Uncle Sam also seems to be investing more in Appalachia than in the Valley. Per-capita federal spending overall was lower in the San Joaquin Valley than in the depressed Central Appalachian sub-region, the report released Wednesday concluded.

“This is a significant challenge for us,” said Merced Democrat Dennis Cardoza, one of the instigators of the new report. “We have to continue to fight to get our fair share of resources.”

There can be many reasons why some regions get more federal funds than others, and it’s not always because of political clout. Areas with many senior citizens, for instance, can be awash in Social Security and Medicare checks. In Appalachia, 14.3 percent of residents are age 65 or older; in the Valley, under 10 percent are 65 or older.

Consequently, federal retirement and disability payments are higher. Moreover, the Valley does better than Appalachia in some areas, including receiving federal grants.

Still, the comparison with benighted Appalachia carries weight. Valley lawmakers ordered the study as a foundation for efforts to draw more federal resources into the 27,280-square-mile region stretching from Stockton to Bakersfield. Appalachia is relevant not only for its poverty, but for the concentrated federal fix-it effort provided through regional entities like the Tennessee Valley Authority.

“This provides the basis for thinking that an extraordinary intervention strategy is necessary,” said Carol Whiteside, president of the Modesto-based Great Valley Center. “Many of us believe that we need some permanent, regional group that has some ongoing, continuous responsibility (for helping the region).”

Appalachia has the TVA and the 13-state Appalachian Regional Commission. Congress in recent years has approved similar regional economic commissions for Alaska, the Mississippi Delta and the Northern Great Plains.

The San Joaquin Valley is currently targeted by several, considerably smaller programs, including Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley, announced last June in Fresno. A federal interagency effort begun in the Clinton administration still meets, to mixed reviews.

Concentrated federal investment can work, analysts believe, and the new report points to the changes wrought since the Appalachian Regional Commission was created in 1965. Since then, the Appalachian poverty rate has been cut in half, and the region’s high-school graduation rates have increased by 70 percent.

“Forty years and billions of public and private dollars later, the region has changed,” CRS analyst Tadlock Cowan noted.

Nonetheless, many are skeptical of formal new commissions or agencies.

“I don’t want to see a big new bureaucracy set up to do this,” Cardoza said.

Visalia Republican Devin Nunes agreed that “you’re not going to see anything like” the sprawling Appalachian Regional Commission set up on the Valley’s behalf. Like Cardoza, though, he believes the chart-laden study will be useful when making Capitol Hill funding requests.

“It’s going to make it easier for us to make our case, on why the Valley shouldn’t be shortchanged,” Nunes said. “It definitely is a spotlight on our region; it definitely gives us the evidence we need.”

Cardoza, Nunes, Mariposa Republican George Radanovich, Tracy Republican Richard Pombo and Fresno Democrat Jim Costa united in ordering the report.

In broad terms, it tracks the findings of earlier reports by think tanks, universities and independent analysts. The incessant level of comparative detail is unusual, though, as is the congressional imprimatur.

“This gives greater credibility to the numbers,” Whiteside said. “It gives greater weight to the data.”

Privately, some lawmakers have winced at the comparison with Appalachia. Analysts, though, noted a number of parallels, starting with each region’s traditional reliance on a single industry: mining in Appalachia, and farming in the Valley.