El Centro, Calif., is the largest U.S. city to be situated entirely below sea level. At the moment, it’s also home to the country’s most underwater job market. Nationally, the unemployment rate sits at 9.5 percent. But in the El Centro metropolitan area, it’s a staggering 27.6 percent. And as workers across the country struggle to navigate the anemic labor market, El Centro has emerged as a case study about just how fragile the economic recovery can be.
In recent years, California’s multibillion-dollar budget shortfall and its painful cutbacks have gotten plenty of attention. But even by California standards, El Centro’s situation is unusually dire. Since the recession hit, the area’s housing market has fallen apart, its wages have remained dismal, and its unemployment rate has soared.
Located within Imperial County and just miles away from the Mexican border, the El Centro metropolitan area is home to upwards of 150,000 people. Among them is Cheryl Viegas-Walker, a banker who also serves as the city’s mayor. In El Centro, the position of mayor rotates between the members of the city council. Viegas-Walker has sat on the council for 13 years and is currently serving her third term as mayor.
Viegas-Walker attributes the city’s sky-high unemployment rate to its agricultural economy. Laborers in El Centro grow and harvest broccoli, lettuce, wheat, and just about everything in between. All told, agriculture in Imperial County is a billion-dollar-a-year industry. But agricultural work is often temporary by nature, and seasonal job losses take a toll on the city’s overall unemployment rate. Meanwhile, competition from workers from nearby Mexico makes agricultural jobs harder to come by.