AFTER THE RIOTS: REBUILDING THE COMMUNITY : South L.A.'s Poverty Rate Worse Than ’65


South Los Angeles--the epicenter of the deadly rioting--lagged far behind the rest of the county during the 1980s in nearly every measure of prosperity, and has a higher poverty rate now for its families than it had in 1965, according to new Census Bureau figures.

The statistics underscore numerically the social problems that have plagued the area since the Watts riots more than a quarter century ago: joblessness, hopelessness and a crippling lack of skills and education.

Only the faces have changed. In 1965, the area was 81% black. By 1990, with more than double the population, half the people in South Los Angeles were Latino and the black community comprised 44.8%

In 1990, 672,416 people lived in the area bounded roughly by Pico Boulevard on the north, Rosecrans Avenue on the south, Van Ness Avenue on the west and Alameda Street on the east, a region that was the subject of a special 1965 census after the Watts riots.


Demographically, the area is a microcosm of the changes that massive immigration has brought to all of Los Angeles during the past 10 years. More than one person in three living in the area in 1990 was foreign-born, and 60% of those immigrants arrived some time during the past 10 years.

But economically, whatever gains had been made by other Angelenos in the ‘80s had barely trickled down to South Los Angeles by 1990.

In every category of achievement--income, employment, education--South Los Angeles was below the city and county averages, and in some cases, below its level in 1965.

For example:


- The 1990 poverty rate for families in South Los Angeles was twice the rate for the city overall, nearly three times the national rate of 11% and, at 30.3%, higher even than it was at the time of the Watts riots, when 27% of the area’s families lived in poverty. In 1990, more than 41,500 South Los Angeles families were living below the poverty line.

- Like most Angelenos, people in South Los Angeles had a higher per capita income, adjusted for inflation, in 1990 than they had 10 years earlier. But in South Los Angeles, the gain was only $7,023, compared to $16,188 citywide, and it had increased by just 6.5%, compared to 14.8% citywide.

- In terms of household income, things looked a little better for South Los Angeles, in part, experts say, because of the number of Latino immigrants who live two and three families to a home. For South Los Angeles, the median household income was $19,382, a 16.8% increase, adjusted for inflation, from 1980 levels. But once again, the improvement failed to keep pace with the rest of the city, where the median income was $30,925 and the increase was 17.2%.

- Four in 10 South Los Angeles households were struggling to get by in 1990 on less than $15,000 a year, the figures showed, and one in 10 was forced to scrape along on less than $5,000. The rates were double what they were for the county overall, where 20% of households earned less than $15,000 a year, and only 4.7% earned less than $5,000 a year.


- More than half the people ages 16 and older in South Los Angeles were either unemployed in 1990 or had dropped out of the labor force, a function, experts say, of hopelessness and the proliferation of street-corner dope dealers.

- The proportion of households on public assistance shot up between 1980 and 1990 from about 19% to about 25%, even though in real terms, people were getting less out of their welfare checks. Adjusted for inflation, the average annual public assistance grant shrank by about $35 during the decade, from $6,023 in 1980 to $5,988 in 1990.

- Twenty-six percent of South Los Angeles youths ages 16 to 19 were high school dropouts in 1990, compared to 20% citywide and 17.3% countywide. Nearly 56% of adults older than 25 had dropped out before getting their high school diploma, and one in three adults had left school before finishing the ninth grade.

The only bright note was the comparison to educational levels of 1965, when about 65% of the adults older than 25 had failed to finish high school.


For social policy experts, the numbers were a statistical coda to a song they have been singing for the past 10 years: that South Los Angeles was prime breeding ground for the sort of rage that engulfed the city in the aftermath of the verdicts in Rodney King beating trial.

“Los Angeles has made economic progress, but that progress has left behind those on the bottom of the economic scale,” said Paul Ong, a UCLA associate professor of urban studies and author of a study on the widening income gap between Los Angeles’ rich and poor.

In fact, Ong said, “we haven’t made much progress since the late ‘60s for those people who are poor.”

The census data, he said, “just says what we’ve been arguing for a long time--that it’s not enough just to have economic development. It’s not enough just to have growth. We have to think how we can channel development to those who need it most. Trickle-down just doesn’t work.”


J. Eugene Grigsby, acting director of the UCLA Center for Afro-American Studies, agreed. The census data, he said, echoed the findings of a 1991 United Way report on the status of black people in Los Angeles.

One reason for the high unemployment rates in South Los Angeles, he said, is the failure of the educational system. Another may be the high number of young men with drug convictions who are unable to get jobs--in part because of their criminal records--indicating to Grigsby that one solution might be the decriminalization of drugs.

Grigsby predicted that if the poverty of the region is not reversed, Los Angeles will go the way of many Third World cities, with “gated communities with private armies protecting the wealthy few from the impoverished masses.”

Meanwhile, the new South Angelenos are people such as Moises Garza, 24, who came to Los Angeles in 1987 and lives about a mile from the Coliseum in a home where a black family used to live. He moved there, he said, because “you live where you can afford to live"--and this, he believes, is why so many black families remain.


Thelma Johnson, a black mother of two, agrees. A resident of South Los Angeles, she was not at all surprised by the census numbers.

“What’d you expect?” she asked, strolling with her children through the Rose Garden at Exposition Park.

“The politicians never really cared about us. They’re getting rich, and we’re getting poorer.”

Staff writer George Ramos contributed to this story.