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The Geography of Poverty

The Other Side of the Central Valley's Natural Wealth


ISSUE:  Summer 2015

Corner Store. Modesto, CA. Population 201,165. Population living below the poverty line: 20.8%.

California’s Central Valley—that massive swath of grassland and desert, of cattle and fruits, so diverse it’s like a country within a state—has long been known for its agricultural abundance. Its farms yield more than 230 types of crops, producing $40 billion of food annually. Nearly a third of all produce grown in the United States is grown here, and for good reason, since it possesses some of the best soil on the planet. 

But for all its natural wealth, the valley is also home to some of the worst concentrations of poverty in the US, including three of the nation’s five poorest cities—Modesto, Fresno, and Bakersfield. This irony is exacerbated by the fact that, in parts of the valley, one in four households struggle with hunger.

Photographer Matt Black is a son of the valley, raised in Visalia and now hailing from Exeter. For twenty years he’s been documenting this region through long-form photographic essays that provoke questions of social and economic justice. Time and again, he has captured a dispossession almost biblical in its severity, in a style shaped by the climate itself—a high-contrast black-and-white that gives his pictures the muscular tonality you find in Lynd Ward’s Depression-era woodcuts.

For seventeen years, Black stuck with film. Then, in 2012, he threw himself into digital photography. He had been curious about Instagram, especially its potential as a platform for documentary photography. Most intriguing, he says, was the app’s mapping feature, which allowed him “the ability to put images on a path.” It wasn’t long before he realized how to match his commitment to social consciousness with the perfect technological catalyst, in the process transforming an app’s bell-and-whistle perk into a tool for a greater purpose.

Black launched the Geography of Poverty in the winter of 2013 with a photo of a payday lender in Fresno. (You can follow him on Instagram at @MattBlack_BlackMatt). Since then, the series has grown to include various minutiae and moments of economic hardship in Central Valley cities linked by a depressing common denominator—namely that, with few exceptions, more than 20 percent of their residents live below the federal poverty level. 

This summer, Black embarks on the next phase of the project, tracing a path of embattled communities across the country that share the same severity of poverty as the Central Valley cities he knows so well. In this way, the Geography of Poverty transcends the regional to become something more alarmingly American. “It felt too easy for people to dismiss these pictures by saying, ‘Well, that’s just some weird place in California,’” he says. “This larger trip is to combat that. These pictures aren’t just of some marginal place. These communities are everywhere. And the fact that I can link them together in this journey that takes me from coast to coast and back again—that says quite a lot.”

—Paul Reyes

Crop Duster Markers. Corcoran, CA. Population: 24,813 Population below the poverty line: 28.7%. In 2013, Corcoran was ranked fifth among the ten most polluted cities in the US.

Guard Dog. Mendota, CA. Population 11,014. Population living below the poverty line: 47.4%.

Alley Door. Delano, CA. Population 53,041. Population living below the poverty line: 29.9%.

Homeless Camp. Stockton, CA. Population 291,707. Population living below the poverty line: 24.3%. In June 2012, the city of Stockton filed for bankruptcy, making it the second-largest US city (behind Detroit) to seek protection from creditors. That same year, the city had seventy-one murders, making it the third-highest per capita homicide rate in the nation.

Country Road. Lindsay, CA. Population 11,768. Population living below the poverty line: 42.5%. Once the world’s largest olive processor, Lindsay’s last olive cannery closed in 1992.

Birds. Tulare, CA. Population 59,278. Population living below the poverty line: 21.4%.

Farmworker Camp. Alpaugh, CA. Population 1,026. Population living below the poverty line: 54.5%.  Alpaugh suffers from severe groundwater contamination, with high levels of arsenic and other chemicals found regularly in its drinking water.

Shopping Cart. Bakersfield, CA. Population 347,483. Population living below poverty line: 20.4%.

Payday Lender. Fresno, CA. Population 494,665. Population living below the poverty line: 28.9%. Fresno County farms produce more than $6 billion in crops annually. In 2005, the city of Fresno had the highest rate of concentrated poverty in the nation.

Fence Post. Allensworth, CA. Population 471. Population living below the poverty line: 51%. Tulare, an unincorporated community, was founded in 1908 by Lt. Col. Allen Allensworth, an ex-slave and Buffalo Soldier. The self-sufficient community he envisioned foundered for lack of water and protracted land disputes with the Santa Fe Railroad.

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ray gibbs · 2 years ago

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