A county that's home to 1.56 million poor people should probably do something about poverty, don't you think?
According to the latest Census Bureau report, the number of people in L.A. County living below the poverty threshold of $10,956 for a single person or $21,954 for a family of four rose dramatically between 2008 and 2009. And if a million and a half people living in dire poverty isn't bad enough, consider also the hundreds of thousands of employed L.A. residents who are barely getting by. The Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy (LAANE) calculates that 29% of full-time workers in L.A. County earned less than $25,000 last year. That's a lot of Angelenos who have either no job or a crummy one.
It's not looking like the great American private-sector jobs machine will ride to the rescue. The Federal Reserve calculates that U.S. corporations are sitting on roughly $1.8 trillion in cash. With a rising level of U.S. corporate sales and production located in other nations, American big business has managed to reap record profits without expanding production or hiring workers here at home. Small businesses, meanwhile, still struggle to get loans. As for home construction, the main engine of the California economy before the bust, it's unlikely to resume for many years.
By simple process of elimination, that leaves us with the government as a potential source of jobs. And here, the record of local government is mixed. On the one hand, L.A. city government has been slow to spend the federal stimulus dollars earmarked for transportation and infrastructure projects. City Controller Wendy Gruel alleged last month that the city's public works and transportation departments had created only 55 jobs with the $111 million in stimulus funds they'd received. L.A. City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana responded that the actual number was 936 jobs created or saved — but acknowledged that the departments in question had spent just 13% of the allotted funds.
Remarkably, that doesn't make L.A. any worse than most other cities and states: The checks and balances of good government, environmental protection and competitive bidding have slowed infrastructure construction to a crawl across the country.
The good news is that Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa understands that the petty-paced creep of road and rail construction is a disaster at a time when Southern California unemployment is at its highest level since the Depression. His proposal to accelerate the sales-tax-funded $40-billion construction project of new rails and improved roads across L.A. from its allotted 30 years to 10 makes him one of the few public officials today addressing job creation with the urgency it requires.
The other good news is that more and more agencies of local government are requiring that some of the jobs on these construction projects go to workers who've historically been excluded from this kind of work. Three weeks ago, the agency directing the construction of the rail line on Exposition Boulevard adopted a Construction Careers Policy that mandates a local-hiring program for the workers building the line. Hundreds of inner-city workers will be entering the apprenticeship programs of construction unions and put to work building a project that traverses their own community.
The Construction Careers Policy was conceived by LAANE , the organization that developed and championed the living-wage ordinance in L.A. and other cities, as a way to bring minority, chiefly African American, workers into the building trades. It involves an agreement between developers and unions to offer decent pay and benefits on the project under development, and to ensure that 30% of the workers come from the community most affected by the construction. L.A.'s Community Redevelopment Agency adopted this policy in 2008, and LAANE hopes it will be embraced by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority for its $40-billion rail-and-road project as well.
County Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, who took the lead in the adoption of the policy for the Expo Line, is promoting it for the MTA's massive construction project. "This is the jobs generator for the region," he says. "We might as well make it square with the principles of economic justice."
Granted, these criteria might initially slow construction, but the L.A. economy suffers not just from unemployment but from under-compensated employment as well, particularly in its minority communities. Providing opportunity to the sea of poor people who live in Los Angeles requires both a determination to accelerate the construction of a new (and cleaner) transportation system and a commitment to see that the work is done by a workforce that actually looks like Los Angeles.
Ain't nobody else hiring, and we might as well do it right.
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and a columnist for the Washington Post.