Economic distress in Kern County

By Ashley Loza
Kern Valley Sun

Photo courtesy of EIG; An interactive map of American counties shows Kern County with an overall “at risk” score of 65.3. Bordered almost entirely by counties with “comfortable” or “prosperous” ratings, Kern County shares some of its economic struggles with its neighbors, Kings County and Tulare County, which are also “distressed” and “at risk,” respectively.

A new report on distressed communities in the U.S. shows the Kern River Valley in an unfavorable economic position. Kern County as a whole did not fare much better.

The 2017 “Distressed Communities Index,” released annually by the Economic Innovation Group, studies communities in the U.S. by zip code and rates them on a scale of “distressed” to “prosperous.” With a max score of 100, higher scores mean that a community is more distressed, while lower scores indicate a more prosperous community.

Kern County as a whole placed in the “at risk” category just below “distressed” with a score of 65.3, ranking 40 out of California’s 58 counties.
In the Kern River Valley, the scores were even less promising.

Lake Isabella placed among the most distressed communities in the nation with a score of 98.1. Onyx was the next most distressed community in the valley, with a score of 86.3.

Kernville fared the best with a “mid-tier” category score of 51.5, followed by Wofford Heights, which just passed “at risk” with a score of 62.6.

Weldon, Bodfish and Caliente fell in the middle with “at risk” scores of 66.2, 74.2 and 79.8, respectively.

None of the KRV’s communities came close to the “comfortable” rating that ranged between 20 and 40 points.

The ranking was determined by seven community risk factors that included residents with no high school diploma, housing vacancy rates, adults aged 25-64 not working, poverty rate, medium income ratio, and the changes in employment and business establishments between the “economic recovery” years of 2011-2015.

Wofford Heights led the valley with the lowest poverty rate at 2.5 percent, while Lake Isabella held the highest at 36.4 percent. Onyx was close behind Isabella with an even 36 percent.
Kernville, Weldon and Bodfish held up the middle with 9.7 percent, 24.2 percent and 28.2 percent, respectively.

According to EIG, 17 percent of the U.S.’s population resides in a distressed zip code, and over half of them are found in the Southern states.

Nearly 12 percent of California’s population lives in a distressed community. By comparison, roughly 43 percent of residents in Mississippi, the nation’s most distressed state, live in a distressed zip code.
EIG found that in distressed communities like Lake Isabella, job growth during the economic recovery period generally trailed the national average by more than 30 points.

During that time, 99 percent of new jobs created went to residents with some college, and 73 percent went to those with Bachelor’s degrees or higher. This reflected strongly in distressed communities, where higher percentages of the population were less likely to have finished high school.

This lack of employment opportunities, as well as factors such as higher rates of drug abuse, suicide, violence and cancer, caused mortality rates to skyrocket in distressed communities. These communities, on average, see residents dying five years sooner than their counterparts in prosperous communities.

Neonatal mortality rates in these communities are even more alarming, peaking at 86 percent higher than in prosperous communities.
Mortality rates for residents suffering from substance abuse and other mental disorders are higher by 64 percent.

The life expectancy comparison of distressed communities in the U.S. to the UN’s “Human Development Index” (HDI) tells a similarly shocking story.

Both men and women in distressed communities have a life expectancy similar to that of the world’s less developed countries. For example, women in prosperous communities in the U.S. have life expectancies more similar to Denmark, which places fifth on the HDI, but in distressed communities, their life expectancy is closer to that of El Salvador, which ranks 117th.

EIG’s closing statements on the Distressed Communities Index reflect the struggle that communities in Kern County have felt during the nation’s economic recovery years: “It is fair to wonder whether a recovery that excludes tens of millions of Americans and thousands of communities deserves to be called a recovery at all.”

To read more about EIG’s Distressed Communities Index, visit