Last Rites for a Land of Opportunity : Vibrant L.A. Needs Ways to Share Its Prosperity With All

J. Stanley Sanders, who was born and raised in Watts, is a lawyer who serves on the city's Recreation and Parks and Coliseum commissions

The idea of America as a land of opportunity for all, with its 21st-Century urban capital in Los Angeles, is not dead yet, but it is dying and at a lot faster rate than anyone before now had suspected.

According to a recent report from the UCLA Graduate School of Architecture and Urban Planning, if you are among the one out of six or so Angelenos born below the poverty line, the chances are you will be reared in poverty and remain poor the rest of life. Even if you are poor and find employment and continue to work, you will remain poor by Los Angeles standards and your children, too, are apt to repeat the poverty cycle.

These poor are mainly blacks and Latinos in our inner city and constitute what is increasingly regarded as a "permanent underclass" of working and non-working poor who have not been advanced by either our system of local public education or federal jobs programs. Jobs are seemingly "reserved" for the poor at a subsistence level and are every bit as immutable economically as the legally enforced job reservation system of South African apartheid. The wages are low, the hours are long, the working conditions are deplorable, and there is no hope for anything better.

Moreover, our ever-expanding network of freeways provides bypass around and over the clusters of poor in South-Central and East Los Angeles, so that workaday Southern California commuters easily avoid unsightliness. Affordable housing, to the extent that it can be built in Los Angeles at all, has not been built for the poor in more than 20 years. The public school system was in retreat in the ghettos and barrios from quality education long before Proposition 13 was passed and is now near collapse.

The poor in Los Angeles even are shortchanged in the distribution of municipal services. The formulas used to allocate capital spending for park improvement in the city of Los Angeles strongly favor developing communities to the neglect of urban recreation centers and parks. Health-care delivery systems to the poor, such as emergency room services often used by people too poor to afford preventive medical care, are subject to wholesale cutbacks. We are even retreating from acceptable internationally established levels of prenatal care for poor pregnant mothers, for example, by refusing Medi-Cal reimbursement for some medical procedures.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles, most notably on the Westside, is experiencing unprecedented growth and prosperity. The city that was derided 20 years ago for lacking a self-identity is today a veritable magnet for the world's rich and famous. There is a life style evident in fashion, in architecture, even in language, that is identifiable as Los Angeles.

The growing gap between rich and poor in Los Angeles during the past decade is a sharp departure from the recent history of this city since the end of World War II. The period of 1946-76 was largely a time of peace and prosperity. The region's economic growth bestowed on rich and poor alike a standard of living that gave even those at the bottom hope in the future. It was a time of remarkable progress in race relations; for example, we made more uninterrupted advances in civil rights than at any other time in the nation's history.

Even this slight sharing of the general prosperity, while never equal to a legitimate trickling-down, does appear now to have stopped altogether. The entire nation, grown weary from a decades-long struggle for equality of opportunity and caught up in the grip of a persistent cultural narcissism, is fast abandoning the compassion for the underclass that distinguished our democracy from class-conscious Europeans. The American middle class is shrinking and its members are moving now toward one of economic extremes: wealth or poverty. The disparity between the poor and the rest of this vibrant city is causing huge opportunity shutters to be closed, thus widening a yawning economic as well as racial chasm. On the one side are many blacks and Latinos living out an existence of economic deprivation reminiscent of times long forgotten. On the other side, many whites and Asians are carrying out the cultural destiny of a Pacific Rim metropolis.

What is worse is that there is increasingly less contact between the sides. Children of Los Angeles are educated in two different systems of education, a poor one that is publicly financed and a rich one financed partly by the public and partly by parents who are able to pay private-school tuition.

The city's rich no longer seem concerned about the welfare of the city's poor. As long as the poor are kept at a comfortable distance and out of sight, almost no attention is paid to them.

The present trend might be reversible were it not for the fact that there is an intellectual gap as well compounding the trend. There are no new ideas, much less compassion, on what to do about the underclass. We seem wholly lacking in innovative solutions to the problems of poverty and to the hardening racial barriers that beset the city. It is clear from the UCLA report that Los Angeles in 1989 bears no resemblance to the social and political workshops and laboratories of the 1960s, which produced such ideas as Head Start and Upward Bound and other affirmative action programs that prompted dramatic increases in the numbers of blacks and other minorities enrolling in college.

While it may sometimes appear otherwise, Los Angeles is not isolated from the rest of the country in its prosperity or in its growing poverty gap. As a city it has done remarkably well during the past decade in setting trends that other cities, indeed, other nations at the high end of the economic and life-style register have seemed eager to follow. The same leadership needs to be provided by Los Angeles to demonstrate how a modern urban area can distribute the prosperity it enjoys to all who dwell within it.

But first we need more ideas and more useful experiments to penetrate those opportunity shutters that will allow us to see through to the other side and give us the same confidence in dealing with the underclass that we bring to other aspects of the dynamic style that is Los Angeles.

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