Op-Ed

L.A. is the bad jobs capital of the U.S.

The latest figures on Los Angeles County residents’ educational attainment might lead you to think that way too many of them don’t have enough schooling to get a job. Twenty-one percent of Angelenos over 25 have a high school diploma but nothing more, while 22% of them, according to the year-end survey by the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., don’t even have that.

The really bad news, however, is that they won’t have trouble landing a job. As the survey documents, from 2015 through 2020, fully 64% of entry-level jobs in the nation’s largest county will require either no more than a high school degree (29.7% of the jobs) or not even that (34.6%). That means that a significant share of the locals entering the workforce will have to take jobs for which they’re over-credentialed and – like their less educated fellow workers – very likely underpaid.

Year in, year out, L.A. remains the nation’s capital of crummy jobs, at least when compared to other major metropolitan areas. The median wage for all occupations in the county last year was $39,250, and for many of the occupations that are growing most quickly, it’s a lot lower than that: $28,101 in sales, $27,019 in maintenance, $21,653 in food preparation and serving.

As we enter the Trump era, L.A. stands as the extreme example of one of the two kinds of American economic dysfunction – the metropolitan kind. Big cities don’t lack for jobs these days; low-wage employment is robust. It’s the middle-income jobs that came with unionized manufacturing, transportation and construction that have gone missing. The other form of dysfunction is found in the abandoned factory and mill towns of the once industrial Midwest, from which manufacturing has also fled, but where service-sector and retail jobs are scarce as well. Labor force participation is low, opiate abuse high, and life expectancy shrinking.

The polyglot metropolises voted for Hillary Clinton; the largely white post-industrial states voted for Donald Trump. But their economies suffer in different ways from the same very dangerous sickness: An inability to generate decent-paying jobs for blue-collar or service-sector workers, or, more succinctly, a sizable middle class.

There’s little in Trumponomics that could plausibly bring back the economy’s missing middle. Some offshored manufacturing may return, but today’s robotized factories employ a fraction of the workforces they once did. More infrastructure construction will create jobs, but congressional Republicans want to repeal the legislation that guaranteed workers on those jobs a decent wage. Budget cuts that offset tax giveaways to the rich will likely take a toll on teachers and their students. The Republicans’ ongoing war against labor will almost certainly reduce the unionized share of the workforce to single digits, diminishing what little bargaining power workers have to win a higher share of the proceeds from their work.

There are things that Democratic cities like Los Angeles and states like California can still do, however, to create economic rules and standards that do more to reward work.

Both L.A. and California have already raised their minimum wage to $15. Cities and states can also use their taxing power to prod corporations to stop rewarding top executives and shareholders at the expense of their workers and productive investment. In December, Portland, Ore., passed the first law in the nation to put a surtax on corporations that pay their CEO more than 100 times what they pay their median worker. (Today’s CEOs make roughly 270 times what their median worker makes; 50 years ago, they made 20 times the median pay.) The Portland ordinance applies to every corporation with significant revenue in the city (according to the law’s author, there are 540 such corporations; just five are locally based). In the same spirit, cities and states could lower taxes on corporations that had significant worker representation on their boards of directors. Like the state of New York, they could also establish public boards that set labor standards for particular industries.

None of these measures – even the sizable hikes in the minimum wage – do anywhere near enough to generate the millions of middle-income jobs the nation clearly needs. Neither the left nor the right has a plausible plan to generate full employment – a prerequisite for broadly shared prosperity – in the brave new economy. But Los Angeles can’t wait for a panacea that may never come. This city of the working poor requires action – whatever its limitations – now.

Harold Meyerson is executive editor of the American Prospect. He is a contributing writer to Opinion.

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