Twenty-five years after the L.A. riots, the neighborhoods most affected by the unrest face similarly depressed economic conditions, according to a new UCLA report, “1992 Revisited.” In fact, some riot-torn communities have higher poverty rates today — and so does L.A. County as a whole, the analysis found.
The report looks at the economy and employment in quadrants of South L.A. (northeast, southeast, southwest and northwest) as well as in Greater Koreatown and Pico-Union/Westlake. The poverty rate for all but one of those areas, the southeastern portion of South L.A., has grown since the days of unrest, according to UCLA data culled from multiple sources, including the Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety, the Korea Central Daily newspaper and the California Department of Insurance.
“There's no question that if you track economic inequality, it has grown in Los Angeles,” says the report's lead author, Paul Ong, who directs UCLA's Center for Neighborhood Knowledge. “That's one of the driving forces behind the data.”
At about 37 percent, the southeast quadrant's poverty rate — those living at or below income levels prescribed by the federal government — fell a few percentage points when comparing 1990 to the years that include 2011 through 2015.
For every other area examined, the poverty rate has increased. The rate for all of L.A. County also has grown, from 15 percent to nearly 18 percent.
Ong's theory is that an influx of immigrants, many of whom will work for less pay than U.S. natives, drove up the poverty rate. The entirety of the riots zone, which was 37 percent African-American and 53 percent Latino in 1990, is now 21 percent black and 65 percent Latino, according to the report. “We're getting an immigrant population that's probably much more dependent on work and that accepts very low-wage jobs,” Ong says
In Greater Koreatown and Pico-Union/Westlake, the only communities in the report that are north of the 10 freeway, the increase in the poverty rate has been slight — less than a percentage point. In the northeast quadrant of South L.A., just south of downtown, the poverty rate jumped from about 37 percent to nearly 43 percent — marking the highest incidence of poverty in the report.
In northwest South L.A. the poverty rate increased from more than 30 percent to almost 34 percent. This area — which includes Jefferson Park and West Adams — is experiencing a high-dollar real estate boom, so the increase seems a little confounding. Homes are listing for around $800,000 in some cases. Ong says it's possible this kind of gentrification isn't yet being reflected in poverty data. “It might indicate what's going to happen in the future to a small but growing segment” of the northwest quadrant, he says.
The study also looked at unemployment rates. Only two quadrants measured in the study had lower unemployment rates in recent years than during the days of unrest: the southeast quadrant of South L.A., where unemployment dipped from nearly 19 percent to nearly 15 percent, and the northeast section, where it decreased from about 15 percent to about 10 percent. The other communities examined saw slightly higher unemployment. L.A. County's unemployment rate has increased from 7 to 10 percent.
Koreatown and Pico-Union were the only areas with increased jobs-to-worker ratios compared with 1990. Both have above a 1:1 ratio — meaning there are slightly more jobs available than there are workers to do them.
All the communities examined had lower per-capita retail sales compared with 1992. Ong believes that a post-riots exodus of chain retailers could be the culprit. But the figure also is the result of how little cash people have to spend in the first place. “Wage pressure has increased,” he says. “The rent burden has increased.”
So why aren't people burning down stores today? The riots were sparked in part by the acquittal of the four cops accused of beating motorist Rodney King. Today there isn't such a singular matchstick. But Ong warns that in the years and months preceding the riots, many in the media believed “things may not be that bad.”
He notes that his 1989 report on inequality in Los Angeles, “The Widening Divide,” was met with the general reaction that “I was being overly pessimistic.”
“It's hard to measure people's level of frustration,” he says. “I certainly know people are feeling stressed economically.”