Ground zero in America’s longest and deepest recession, El Centro in southern California

If you’re looking for ground zero in America’s longest and deepest recession, El Centro in southern California appears on first glance to fit the bill. The unemployment rate here and for the whole of Imperial County hit 30.1 percent in September, the highest rate in the United States. Locals say there is no denying that El Centro has suffered as a result of the recession and that jobs are more scarce in an area where agriculture is the backbone of the community and forms 25 percent of the local economy.
El Centro city manager Ruben Duran say the jobless numbers don’t tell the full story. Duran points to the fact that back in March 2006 unemployment in Imperial County fell to 12.2 percent and the number of employed people in this county of around 160,000 totaled 54,057.
But when unemployment hit 30.1 percent – well over double the rate in March 2006 — the number of employed workers slid less than 1 percent, to 53,734. City revenue from taxes is only down about 10 percent this year, Duran said, which also does not tally with the sharp rise in the jobless rate. “Yes, there has been hardship and suffering here,” Duran said. “But where did all those extra unemployed people come from if the number of people in work has barely fallen?”
Drive around El Centro, a city of some 48,000, and it does not feel like some of America’s long-suffering communities like Flint, Michigan, where collapsing auto sales amid the recession have led to an unemployment rate of 15.8 percent. Whereas Flint is dealing with shuttered businesses and abandoned homes, relatively few stores have closed in El Centro.
Duran said the key to understanding the local economy and El Centro’s high jobless rate lies just across the border in the city of Mexicali, a city of more than 1 million people. “The border bleeds both ways,” he said. “Many people who live here work in Mexicali. The trouble with the statistics is they stop at the border and don’t take into account the role a major city across the border plays in our economy.”
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