Economic concerns rise to the top in borderlands poll
Yuma has one of the highest unemployment rates along the U.S.-Mexico border — or anywhere in the county — and the top concerns of residents are jobs and the economy rather than a wall or illegal immigration, according to a Cronkite News-Univision News-Dallas Morning News poll.
“It’s really hard. Jobs here don’t pay well,” said Jose Jimenez, 19, an accounting student at Arizona Western College in Yuma.
Jimenez’s struggle to find work is reflected in the poll, with 40 percent of the 700 respondents in the United States saying jobs, wages and the economy are the most important issues. In Yuma, that number is even higher at 48 percent.
The poll, with a margin of error of plus or minus 3.7 percentage points, was conducted in May by Austin-based Baselice & Associates Inc. It included questions on quality of life and cross-border relations, and was conducted in person and over the phone in both English and Spanish. Jimenez recently stopped by the MLK Youth Center to update his resume. He’s living with his mother while he searches for work.
The border city is home to roughly 200,000 people, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau. As of April 2016, the non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate is 18.7 percent, where it has hovered since the 2009 recession.
“What is reflected in our unemployment is a combination of things: It is the seasonality, because we are also one of the winter visitor targeted regions,” said Julie Engel, CEO of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation.
“We get about a hundred thousand people in the winter, and that’s also the produce season, which is labor-intensive, so in the summer, our unemployment rate spikes,” said Engel.
The top employer in Yuma, the U.S. Army Proving Ground, which tests military-grade parachutes, employs 2,300 people. The other major employers, the Yuma Regional Medical Center and the Yuma Elementary School District, account for 4,000 jobs. One out of every four people in the area works for the government.
Engel insists that the Development Corporation has made some meaningful strides in bringing jobs to Yuma, like the addition of the cancer center at the regional hospital and growth of the hospitality industry.
“There is just a lot of different opportunities that didn’t exist five years ago and really didn’t exist 10 years ago,” she said.
Manuel Almodova, a Yuma native who retired after working heavy highway construction for 27 years, is once again searching for a job. When his wife got cancer, their hard-earned nest egg was quickly depleted.
When he was employed, he frequently traveled to job sites in other states that offered higher wages. “Most of my work was in Northern California, Southern California, Oregon, Utah; anything north of Arizona where they pay scale was higher,” he said.
Almodova sees people searching for jobs on Facebook exchange pages, where residents informally trade goods and services. Some offer up free clothing, furniture and even cars, while others use it as a new-age classified advertising page. He said that often times job seeker’s expectations do not align with the reality of Yuma.
“There are jobs, but it’s minimum wage,” he said, “Hotels, fast food, what have you; but people want to earn more than minimum pay.”
Some in Yuma are trying to create their own job opportunities. The Southwest Exchange Home and RV Superstore, owned by Idaho native Kory Kehle, sits on a dusty frontage road in the foothills about 10 minutes outside of town. Inside, you can buy everything from portable cell phone chargers to faux-Persian area rugs. Country music blares from speakers in the ceiling.
“Ever since I’ve been in business I’ve been catering to the snowbird, the traveler, the winter guest. I pay the price in the summer and I reap the benefits in the winter,” said Kehle.
Kehle opened the store in 2013, after years of selling similar wares in a seasonal open-air market down the road. He saw the chance to grow his business to a year-round enterprise by going brick-and-mortar, and said he hasn’t looked back since.
“We’ve been very fortunate that every year we do a little bit better than the year before,” he said. “We’re constantly upgrading and we’re constantly trying to improve it.”
Every industry is impacted by Yuma’s characteristic seasonality, including retail. Tourists visit for the winter months and head back to more temperate climates as summer approaches, taking their money with them.
Mario Gonzalez, seated next to Kehle in a work shirt bearing his name, has been with him since day one.
“I have a picture of the first customer from when we first started,” Gonzalez said with pride.
Gonzalez moved to Yuma from California 20 years ago at the urging of his wife, who wanted to be closer to family in Mexico. He can see the border from his house in Yuma. He travels across regularly to visit his son, daughter-in-law and grandchild. For him, the constant exchange between the United States and Mexico sides of Yuma is central to understanding the economics of the community.