Economic Divide: Linking poverty and prosperity

Traffic moves along Highway 111 in Thermal, Calif. (photo: Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun)
Traffic moves along Highway 111 in Thermal, Calif. (photo: Jay Calderon, The Desert Sun)

Center for Regional Change stresses need for employment in the Coachella Valley.

January 24, 2014

One hundred miles of state highway separate Indian Wells from the border city of El Centro.

The trip along Highway 111 takes less than two hours by car, passing fields of peppers, tomatoes, and corn, through business corridors with billboards and placards in Spanish and along medians and towering palm trees leading to the resort cities of La Quinta, Indian Wells and Palm Springs.

But 50 years after President Lyndon Johnson declared a war on poverty, the miles and lifestyles between El Centro and Indian Wells seem harder and farther.

Worlds apart

The unemployment rate in El Centro, nearly a quarter of eligible workers, is one of the highest in the nation. A scarcity of jobs means many families cut back on food and health care.

Along with higher poverty rates and unemployment, fewer residents have finished high school in the rural communities in the eastern Coachella Valley and Imperial County. While nearly all residents of Indian Wells are high school graduates and average incomes there top $89,000, only about one in every three people in Mecca and North Shore finished high school and incomes average under $10,000.

Rural 'segregation'

While economic disparities exist in close proximity around the country, living in a rural area poses special challenges for the poor.


Professor Jonathan London, UC Davis.

“The jobs climate is poor to a much greater distance, so people are either stuck in place with limited economic opportunities or they’re traveling huge distances,” said Professor Jonathan London, director of the Center for Regional Change at the University of California, Davis, and the lead author on a report released in June, “Revealing the Invisible Coachella Valley,” which focused on poor living conditions in the eastern valley.


“There’s a certain kind of special segregation in rural areas that is distinct,” he said.

The shortage of jobs closer to home mean many people in the eastern valley spend a disproportionate amount of their time, energy and money traveling to jobs in the western valley, often in the tourism industry, London said.

London said the availability of jobs in affluent communities shouldn’t be seen as a way for workers in the eastern valley to improve their economic standing. “Those jobs, often called pink-collar jobs, are relatively low-wage and have no upward mobility,” he said.

Rather than focusing on the job, London said the solution is education. “You’re never going to get ahead without the opportunities you can get with a college education,” he said, adding that the challenge for low-income communities then becomes how to draw residents back once they’ve completed their schooling.

[Read the full article, by Barrett Newkirk,, in the Desert Sun.]

Media contact:

College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, UC Davis, contact: