President Barack Obama made an eloquent plea for equality and opportunity in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.
He spoke passionately about the need to reward people who have a work ethic. He lamented that “too many Americans are working longer just to get by,” and too many have no jobs. He called on Congress to extend unemployment benefits for long-term unemployed people.
In soaring rhetoric, the president called for an immigration law overhaul and a higher minimum wage. He urged more early childhood education and apprenticeships, and improved higher education. He called for helping working women attain pay parity with men, and a new retirement savings method for all workers.
We couldn’t help but think that Obama might have been speaking directly to those of us who live and work in California’s Central Valley – except that he has treated the Valley as fly-over territory.
President Lyndon Johnson went to Appalachia 50 years ago to make its poverty real to the rest of the nation. Obama could make some of the same points today in many parts of this Valley. Indeed, a 2005 congressional report said the San Joaquin Valley lags behind Appalachia in some ways.
Obama has pushed for programs that will help, most notably the Affordable Care Act. Large numbers of uninsured residents live in the Central Valley, and will benefit from Obamacare.
An immigration law overhaul, one that gives workers a path to citizenship, would help, too, though he cannot do that without House Republicans.
But for a brief visit to Keene to dedicate the Cesar Chavez National Monument a month before the 2012 election, and a Sacramento fundraiser during the 2008 campaign, Obama has treated the Valley as if it were one more region to fly over.
He could illustrate income inequality in many parts of the Valley, though much of the poverty remains hidden from view, even from its residents. Well-to-do farmers hire migrants who live hand-to-mouth. Developers have become wealthy building houses, but much of the Valley has not recovered from the housing crisis. No region is more bountiful, and yet the need for food stamps is great.
The nation’s unemployment rate is down to 6.7 percent. But rates in much of the Central Valley are twice as high. Combined, 380,000 workers exhausted their unemployment benefits in 2013 in the nine-county stretch from Kern through Sacramento, 18.5 percent of all Californians whose benefits ran out.
Obama made passing reference to California by pointing to Silicon Valley innovation. But he touted new high-tech hubs in North Carolina and Ohio, swing states. California is not a swing state. Democrats will win here without trying.
It’s clear why Obama flies over the Valley. Californians contributed $140 million to Obama’s presidential campaign accounts in 2008 and 2012, 20 percent of his total nationally. But the region from Bakersfield to Visalia, Fresno, Merced, Modesto and Stockton accounted for a mere $1.2 million in combined donations to Obama’s 2008 and 2012 campaigns, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
If Obama wanted to do something positive about income inequality, he could do far worse than focus some of his efforts in the Central Valley. He waxes eloquent about injustice and inequality, but follows the money when he visits coastal California, and ignores the other California.