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Polis Report

Buck Stops

By Will Harper

Just a few years ago, news stories about California's ailing economy abounded. The summertime stories from Sacramento were invariably bad: budget cuts and tax hikes were needed to keep the state's checkbook balanced. As the military industrial complex shrank, the state's jobless rate rose. The downsized felt Michael Douglas's pain in Falling Down, even if they didn't like his buzz cut.

Now the standard front-page story about the economy is a puff piece. High tech is booming. Silicon Valley was just declared the nation's top exporter. Michael Douglas has found sexier movie roles.

But a new study by BridgePath, a Berkeley firm that helps college graduates find jobs, suggests that the state's touted prosperity is a more regional phenomenon than many people realize. Most of the state, the report notes, is not enjoying relief from the economic hangover of the early '90s. While San Jose boasts the nation's lowest unemployment rate (3.1 percent), other parts of the state haven't been so lucky. According to the study, agricultural cities like Modesto, Fresno, Bakersfield, and Stockton are still experiencing double-digit unemployment. Even Los Angeles, where tourism and Hollywood have helped revive the local economy, suffers from 7 percent unemployment. The statewide 6.3 percent jobless rate easily tops the national rate of 4.9 percent.

Robert Arnold, a senior economist for the Palo Alto-based Center for the Continuing Study of the California Economy, says that places like Bakersfield and Fresno simply haven't been able to make the shift from their declining agriculturally based economy to a high-tech or a service-based one. "There are just no jobs in those places. People can move, but they can't move that fast," says Arnold, noting that family connections and other ties keep people rooted. "Packing up and going where the jobs are isn't as easy as it sounds."

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From the Oct. 16-22, 1997 issue of Metro.

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