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Gov. Clinton Should Cross L.A. River

Between now and next November’s presidential election, we’re going to hear a lot about “personal responsibility.”

The notion that America has become ungovernable, that many of its most intractable social problems are the consequence of personal indiscipline, already has become common currency on the stump. Arkansas’ Democratic Gov. Bill Clinton, who is fund raising today in Southern California, has made personal responsibility a centerpiece of his campaign.

“What we have to do,” Clinton insists, “is say: ‘Here is the opportunity agenda. Here is what government owes you.’ But we also must say: ‘Here is the personal responsibility agenda. Here is what you owe to yourself, your government, your country.’ ”

Very catchy. Journalists covering the Democratic candidates say Clinton’s “personal responsibility” message is the one campaign theme that seems to “resonate” with voters. It’s not hard to see why: It’s a cleaned-up appeal to that relic of our national psyche’s Calvinist past, the suspicion that poverty is punishment for sin.

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What it doesn’t do is recognize these facts about American poverty: The fastest growing group of poor Americans are single mothers, most of whom work. And most people who live below the poverty line now are employed, though in jobs that do not pay a living wage.

In Los Angeles County today, the fastest-growing occupation is “sales person,” with an average entry wage of $4.75 per hour. Since 1973, the average yearly income of a Latino high school graduate has declined in real terms by 35%. African-American high school graduates have done even worse: Their annual income has shrunk an astonishing 44% over the past 20 years.

If Gov. Clinton wants to put a face on those statistics, all he need do is take 1st Street out of downtown, and cross the concrete channel that used to be the L.A. River into East Los Angeles. There, if he has the time, he might want to talk with Albert Lopez, a 21-year-old who lives with his mother--who is employed as a garment worker--and younger brother in the Aliso Village public housing project.

Albert, known to his friends as Scrappy, is a member of the TMC gang. Right now, he is working as a computer operator in one of the shoe-string job programs Father Greg Boyle and the Jesuits run at Dolores Mission church. Scrappy has problems, but admitting personal responsibility isn’t one of them.

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How did he get involved with gangs, for example?

“I screwed up,” he says. “I started gang banging when my dad died, when I was 15. He died of alcoholism. He was 49. I work here for Father Greg. I like it because I always wanted to work with computers. I hope I can get better at what I do now, and then get a job in data entry somewhere. If I had that, I could get out of this gang-banging stuff.”

Why not just stop?

“I can’t get out of it now unless I find a job that lets me move far away. There are a lot of other gangs that are our enemies. They know my face. Even if I try to stop, they’ll try and kill me. . . . I’ve been been shot at a lot of times. I’ve been hit three times. I been stabbed three times, too. The last time I got shot was 1989. The last time I was shot at was three weeks ago. I was at home. My mom and my brother were upstairs. Three of them came and shot my house up--maybe 20 shots. Back in ’89 when I got shot, I would have got even already.

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“But I’m older and I’ve started to realize some things. I realize this stuff is stupid. I have a younger brother, and the reason I want to stop gang-banging is I don’t want him to see me screwing up and do the same. He’s 15, the same age I was when I started. I don’t want him to grow up the way I did. I want to be able to help him with school and money.

“When I quit school, I worked all the time. I worked delivering papers for The Times for two years. I worked construction, I worked in a restaurant and a lot of times as a laborer. But I always got laid off. What I’ve always wanted is a good steady job.”

Would such a job have stopped the gang-banging?

“Yeah, when you’ve got a good, permanent job, you’ve got regular hours and things to take care of--responsibilities. You have your own house. You got to pay the bills, the rent and the lights and the gas and all that. You can even find something good to do with your free time, like a hobby or something. If you’ve got that, you’ve got somewhere to go and you don’t want to bang.

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“I’ve got friends now who have stopped. They’re vetranos, you know, and the ones who stopped, they all found good, steady jobs with a union and all that. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Down the street in the Pico Village project, 26-year-old Norma Gaytan, single mother of Selinda, age 4, also has a story to tell. “Until I got pregnant, I worked as a receptionist for Budweiser in South Gate,” she says. “I also worked as a quality control clerk. I’m a high school graduate and until I had my daughter, I always worked. The problem with being on welfare is that if you get a little job, right away they cut your money. How do they expect you to move ahead, to save enough money to get off welfare. That’s what I want; it’s what nearly everybody wants.”

If Gov. Clinton came to Pico Village, what would Norma tell him?

“I’d say: ‘Give me a job and I’ll be off welfare that day. Just because you live in the projects doesn’t mean you’re bad. We have good people and bad people here. What we don’t have here are jobs.”

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Of course, Gov. Clinton won’t be talking with Scrappy and Norma today. He’ll be busy telling the big-money people what a “new social covenant” would be like. Me? I’m like Scrappy and Norma. We’re still stuck on the agreement we thought we had, the one the Roosevelt Administration had in mind when it said “the best social program is a good job.”


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