Washington's latest answer has been more laissez-faire: offer tax breaks for the creation of low-income housing but otherwise leave it to the marketplace to decide how much gets built. In hot housing markets such as Southern California's, little has.
In the absence of substantial government help — and with housing prices soaring beyond the reach of even the middle class — most working-poor families have been left to fend for themselves.
By 1997, Rojas and Maldanado thought they had succeeded in doing that. He was making $5,800 a year at the dry-cleaning plant. She was making more than $12,000 dashing between a part-time job at an airline linen service on Prairie Avenue in Hawthorne and a temporary position with Kelly Services, packing magazines, perfume and shampoo in samplers for direct-market mailings.
In the fall of that year, the couple, with another of Maldanado's aunts and her children, moved into a white stucco bungalow on Burin Avenue in Inglewood, not far from Los Angeles International Airport.
Although the house sagged in the middle and had drainage problems, it featured two kitchens and two living rooms, plenty of space for each family. The place cost Rojas and Maldanado $550 a month. That was more than 30% of their earnings, a level the government considers the outer limit of affordable, but it was still something they could bear.
The bungalow "felt good because there were not so many of us," Rojas said. "It was the most room I've ever had." The following year, the two families celebrated Christmas by stringing sparkling lights along the structure's faded blue eaves and inviting neighbors for a party.
Heading West for Work
Albert Grimes arrived in Los Angeles a few years before Elvira Rojas did, similarly hungry to start over.
He came from Cleveland, where his family was a pillar of the African American community. His father, "Big Joe" Grimes, had returned home from World War II and used the GI Bill to buy a house. He opened a barbershop, founded a youth marching band called B.J.'s Raiders and became a kingmaker of sorts in Cleveland politics.
Albert's uncle, Walter Dicks, ran the municipal workers union and helped the younger Grimes find a job right out of high school on a city sanitation truck. It paid about $15,000, equal to about $30,000 in today's dollars.
But Albert was laid off during one of Cleveland's periodic fiscal crises. In 1985, at the age of 29, he left home and headed West. He had no trouble finding work with one of Los Angeles' big employers.
For most of the postwar era, working Americans could count on big business even more than big government to provide safeguards against economic risk. In a reverse of the current passion for temps, outsourcing and lean workforces, corporate America felt it had a civic duty to offer full-time jobs with good wages and solid benefits, even to those like Grimes with no college education.
"Steady, year-round employment is so right from the standpoint of the employer, so right from the standpoint of the workers and so right for the country as a whole that it is hard to see why we manufacturers have not made more progress in its application," Procter & Gamble Co. President Richard Deupree told a 1948 audience.
As the decades passed, Los Angeles became the hub of the nation's aerospace industry; a second home to U.S. automakers, after Detroit; and a major financial center. Among the region's largest employers: Lockheed Corp., McDonnell Douglas Corp., General Motors Corp., Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co., First Interstate Bank and Security Pacific Bank.
By the late 1970s, the typical L.A. County workplace had nearly 30% more employees than the U.S. average, according to government statistics — a situation that translated into a high level of economic security.
"There is a close correlation between firm size, employment stability and generous compensation," said UCLA economist Sanford Jacoby, who has written extensively about the new risks that working people face. "Big firms underwrote the creation of America's — and Southern California's — blue-collar middle class."
As for Grimes, he found his way to Sears, Roebuck & Co.'s massive warehouse at Olympic Boulevard and Soto Street, where he was hired as a merchandise handler represented by the Teamsters. He did well for himself there. His Social Security records show that his income rose steadily — from $12,000 in 1987 to $20,000 in 1990 (or nearly $28,000 in today's terms). On top of that, his healthcare was covered.