A New Chance to Fight Poverty's Old Problems

More than $100 million in federal aid is probably headed to our poorest neighborhoods in the next couple of years and the trick will be figuring out a way to prevent it from being wasted.

The money would come from a law President Clinton signed in August setting up "empowerment zones" designed to regenerate impoverished neighborhoods. Only six will be created around the nation. But California is crucial to Clinton's reelection, and Los Angeles County is home to the state's largest group of Democratic voters and the largest number of poor people.

So, you can bet on some community around here suddenly becoming an "empowerment zone."

The last time anything comparable happened was after the Watts riots when a raft of well-intentioned social service programs were showered on Los Angeles. A substantial part of the money disappeared into an abyss.

These programs had inspirational names. Model Cities was my favorite. Millions in federal aid flowed through various city halls and the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration into nonprofit organizations designed to turn cities into models by providing job training, gang prevention, drug eradication and other causes.

Many War on Poverty programs were worthwhile. Even so, L.A.'s poor neighborhoods are poorer than ever. I watched money disappearing into the pockets of poverty entrepreneurs who had the right connections in the county building and city halls. If there were 10 such nonprofits, you could figure on half or more doing a good job, some being crooked and a couple being rendered inoperative by impossible-to-explain factional disputes.

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Today's empowerment zone scheme is a combination of Lyndon Johnson's War On Poverty and Ronald Reagan's more conservative economic development policies.

Reagan killed most of Johnson's social programs, but came up with something else. These were called enterprise zones, providing a tax break to businesses that operated in poor neighborhoods and hired local residents.

Borrowing from the Johnson years, Clinton allocated $100 million in grants over a two-year period for social services in each zone, on top of the tax breaks. This is a huge amount of money to be dispensed in a relatively short time.

The money, according to a summary by the Los Angeles Community Development Department, would go to "assist disadvantaged adults and youths in achieving self-sufficiency . . . promote and protect the interests of children and families (and) assist disadvantaged youths and adults in achieving and maintaining economic self support."

Nobody can argue with these goals, but they have the ineffectual sound that characterized much of the War On Poverty. With such vague goals, it's hard to deny any project funding, whether it's likely to succeed or fail. And it's difficult to tell if an agency is doing a good job or ripping off the public.

Another resemblance to the War On Poverty is that the empowerment zone plan looks as though it will promote the same kind of self-destructive political disputes that characterized the earlier effort.

An empowerment zone is limited to 20 square miles, and 200,000 residents. That's just a small part of L.A. County's huge poverty zone, which stretches from East L.A., through Skid Row and then toward the harbor in a broad path on both sides of the Harbor Freeway.

Look at a map and you can see the potential for warfare. Poverty areas extend through several Los Angeles City Council districts, and a number of cities, including Huntington Park, South Gate, Lynwood, Compton and Long Beach. In addition, sizable chunks of unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County would be eligible. City councils, mayors and county supervisors will be scrapping to have a piece of the empowerment zone in their domains.

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Despite all the difficulties, the empowerment zones, and the grants, could do much good.

Los Angeles officials are talking about putting one along the Alameda Corridor, running from the harbor to Downtown Los Angeles. With trade with Asia expanding, companies, drawn by tax breaks, could employ thousands in export and import related businesses. The social service dollars could provide something substantial, like child care and training for specific jobs.

On Nov. 12, Rep. Walter R. Tucker III of Compton began the process of getting the cities and the county together at a meeting at the Radisson Hotel in Carson. Other officials are figuring out ways of preventing waste and theft in the nonprofit agencies that will administer social services.

They will all have the difficult job of making sure this War on Poverty does not end in disgrace.

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