The low-income unincorporated communities of the San Joaquin Valley face uphill struggles to attain basic features of a safe and healthy environment that residents of most other places have long taken for granted. These communities range from remote settlements in farm country to neighborhoods that have been surrounded by, but are not part of, the San Joaquin Valley’s fast-growing cities. There are at least 220 such low-income unincorporated communities in the eight county region. Whether it is a lack of storm drains, streetlights, and sidewalks or an inadequate residential water supply, these communities outside of the San Joaquin Valley’s cities are often systematically underserved if not neglected in the overall allocation of public resources. This neglect prevents these places from realizing their potential as livable neighborhoods and threatens the health and security of their residents. These disparities can be dangerous, such as the illnesses caused from unsafe drinking water, the heightened likelihood of mosquitoes carrying West Nile virus as a result of standing water arising from inadequate storm drains, and the higher rates of traffic accidents on poorly maintained roads. Or, they can chip away more slowly at the prospects for building a strong community, when there is illegal dumping, poor sanitation service, few or no recreation facilities for youth, and dilapidated schools. When the official lack of attention and resources becomes standard practice, it can create an overall discouraging cycle of decline that is hard to break. The fact that governance structures are not organized to ensure meaningful political representation for residents in decision-making only adds to the challenge.
This may be a grim picture, but it has never been taken as inevitable by residents of these communities and their allies. Instead, there has been a continual ferment for change in the unincorporated communities and an array of grass-roots organizing campaigns, lawsuits and efforts to promote legislation. These efforts have brought some tangible improvements, and they have run up against some barriers. Notwithstanding some important individual victories, the broad patterns of inequity have not yet been shifted, and the San Joaquin Valley’s colonias, as they are sometimes called, are still getting a bad deal.
This paper is a step in a year-long effort to think through new strategies for addressing the inequities faced by the unincorporated communities. It has been written at the mid-point of a project in which California Rural Legal Assistance, PolicyLink, and leaders from around the San Joaquin Valley are examining issues, assessing past efforts, setting priorities, and creating new approaches for community organizing, legislation, litigation or other methods for social and policy change. It is a modest framing paper in that it does not attempt to overwhelm the reader with copious evidence of the problems or a detailed analysis of the literature. We at PolicyLink owe a large debt to those who have labored for years on these issues in community-based practice and in research, and we base our understanding on their work. The value added by this paper will hopefully be in the framing itself: the recasting of