width=300If you're looking for ground zero in America's longest and deepest recession, El Centro in southern California appears on first glance to fit the bill.

The unemployment rate here and for the whole of Imperial County hit 30.1 percent in September, the highest rate in the United States. Locals say there is no denying that El Centro has suffered as a result of the recession and that jobs are more scarce in an area where agriculture is the backbone of the community and forms 25 percent of the local economy.

We've always had high unemployment, but nothing like this, said Judith Klein-Pritchard, director of the Center for Family Solutions of Imperial Valley, which provides intervention for domestic violence and shelter services in the area.

However, officials like El Centro city manager Ruben Duran say the jobless numbers don't tell the full story.

Duran points to the fact that back in March 2006 unemployment in Imperial County fell to 12.2 percent and the number of employed people in this county of around 160,000 totaled 54,057.

But when unemployment hit 30.1 percent - well over double the rate in March 2006 - the number of employed workers slid less than 1 percent, to 53,734. City revenue from taxes is only down about 10 percent this year, Duran said, which also does not tally with the sharp rise in the jobless rate.

Yes, there has been hardship and suffering here, Duran said. But where did all those extra unemployed people come from if the number of people in work has barely fallen?

Tim Kelley, head of the Imperial Valley Development Corporation - a pubic private partnership set up to diversify the local economy - said some of the rise in the unemployment rate comes from El Centro residents scattered about the country who have lost their jobs because of the recession and have come home to stay with relatives. Or that some of them are Mexican immigrants who have lost their jobs in the United States, have returned home and are claiming unemployment benefits in El Centro because it is a stone's throw from the border.

There are people who are working the system and that affects our unemployment figures, Kelley said.


Santos Guzman, 64, buys lottery ticket. Farmworker Guzman lives in Mexicali w/wife, son. Comes to US weekly to work.(REUTERS)

Drive around El Centro, a city of some 48,000, and it does not feel like some of America's long-suffering communities like Flint, Michigan, where collapsing auto sales amid the recession have led to an unemployment rate of 15.8 percent. Whereas Flint is dealing with shuttered businesses and abandoned homes, relatively few stores have closed in El Centro.

Duran said the key to understanding the local economy and El Centro's high jobless rate lies just across the border in the city of Mexicali, a city of more than 1 million people.

The border bleeds both ways, he said. Many people who live here work in Mexicali. The trouble with the statistics is they stop at the border and don't take into account the role a major city across the border plays in our economy.

Photos by Lucy Nicholson