By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
LIKE ANY MAJOR METROPOLIS, Los Angeles has its normal sea of troubles, but there are two fundamental problems that really define the city and the challenges it confronts. The first, with which the Weekly has dealt extensively of late, is the quality of its air. The second, which may be even harder to fix, is the quality of its economy. Over the past quarter century, Los Angeles has been downwardly mobile, with its middle class shrinking to a fraction of its former size. Both these problems — air quality and, even more, the vanishing middle — afflict the nation generally. But Los Angeles has opened such a wide lead on every other city that we’re not just quantitatively different; we’re qualitatively in a class by ourselves.
Two surveys that have come out in recent months spell out the economic problem in the starkest of terms. In June, the Brookings Institution released a study titled “Where Did They Go? The Decline of Middle-Income Neighborhoods in Metropolitan America,” a survey of the nation’s 100 largest metropolitan areas in which Los Angeles has the starring role as the city that’s fallen the furthest. Looking at census-tract data from the 1970 and 2000 census reports, the study notes that whereas 58 percent of neighborhoods in those metropolitan areas were middle income in 1970, just 41 percent were in 2000. It’s in L.A., though, that the middle has truly vanished. Just 28 percent of Los Angeles neighborhoods are middle income. That ranks a cool 100 out of the 100 largest metro areas.
As with neighborhoods, so with families. A scant 17.4 percent of L.A. families were middle income in the 2000 census, which ranked us next to last. (New York brought up the rear at 16.2 percent.) Angelenos were both richer and poorer: 40.4 percent of local families had low incomes; 42.2 percent had high incomes. The problem is that the poverty of the poor exceeded the wealth of the rich. Between 1970 and 2000, real median family income in L.A. declined — that’s declined — by 5.7 percent.
This didn’t happen in other cities. Brookings looked most intently at 12 metropolitan areas, including L.A., Chicago, Philadelphia, Oakland and Baltimore — hardly a list composed exclusively of boomtowns. Los Angeles was the only one in which median income went down.
The Los Angeles of 1970 was another country, a different world, from what it is today. It was home to a giant aerospace industry and the second-largest auto-manufacturing center in the nation — both industries unionized, both helping give the region a vast and vibrant middle class. Construction and trucking were largely unionized then too. Today, those jobs and the people who once held them are long gone — many hightailing it to other states in the early and mid-’90s, when aerospace collapsed, in search of the middle-income jobs no longer found in L.A.
Los Angeles rebounded from the recession of the early and mid-’90s, of course, but its middle class did nothing of the kind. Adapting brilliantly to the flood of low-skilled and poorly educated immigrants, the local economy created thousands upon thousands of new shit jobs in fast-food joints and off-the-books factories, in driving trucks and building homes for nonunion employers, in mowing lawns and taking care of the kids. A recent survey, “L.A. Labor Market Strengths and Weaknesses,” from the Los Angeles Economic Roundtable, shows, for instance, that the industry that created the most private-employer jobs between 1996 and 2002 was “limited-service eating places.” Again, we’re creating high-end jobs as well, many in entertainment. But 24 percent of employed L.A. city residents, the Roundtable concludes, are poor.
The absence of jobs in the middle means that traditional ladders of social mobility that were there for generations of immigrants (from either foreign countries or domestic rural areas) throughout American history aren’t there now. And as the poor are cut off from the prospect of middle-income employment, they’re cut off from the prospect of living in middle-income neighborhoods too. Nationally, according to Brookings, 55 percent of low-income families lived in middle-income neighborhoods in 1970. By 2000, just 37 percent did. Brookings didn’t publish the figures for L.A., but they have to be a lot worse.
IN A SENSE, BROOKINGS HAS PROVIDED the statistical verification, if one were needed, for the premises, if not the ensuing action, of Crash. The L.A. that emerges from its study, and the Roundtable’s, is all gap and no bridge.
There are, of course, some notable attempts at bridge building. The victories of the labor movement and living-wage activists to win higher wages for public-contract workers or employees at projects built with governmental assistance or tax breaks have moved a number of workers (not nearly enough) out of poverty. So has the growth of unionization among such low-wage workers as janitors and (happening just now) security guards. But the inability of supermarket workers a few years back to block the imposition of wage and benefits cuts for new hires reduced the number of local middle-income jobs.
The challenge for the city is how to fight these battles on the much larger scale required to rebuild a middle class — and that’s certainly how the mayor sees it. Antonio Villaraigosa’s war over the schools is about all manner of things large and small, but at its largest, it stems from a belief — at minimum, a hope — that an educated work force will rebuild the middle class here.
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