In Watts Visit, Clinton Vows Job, Education Aid
President Clinton on Thursday concluded his cross-country tour of communities mired in poverty with a visit to Watts, Los Angeles’ symbolic heart of chronic impoverishment, and pledged new help to connect disadvantaged young people with jobs in the new economy.
At Locke High School, the president underscored the day’s theme with a tour of a federally assisted high-tech academy that introduces students to transportation-related careers in architecture, engineering and urban planning.
In personal chats, he encouraged youths, including Stephen Ramirez, 17, to stick to their studies and their goals. Ramirez, who recently graduated and has enlisted in the military, later told reporters the program helped prevent him from becoming lost in a community that is “neglected all the time.”
During a Southern California swing that included discussions with business, political and education leaders at Los Angeles Southwest College and a conference in Anaheim, Clinton unveiled the latest in a series of programs intended to help bring the benefits of the nation’s economic recovery to Watts and other pockets of the nation that have been left behind.
Despite some trickle-down effects of the robust economy, the neighborhoods around Locke High School still have estimated poverty rates of 40% or more and jobless rates two to three times the regional and national averages.
The president said he is attempting to “shine a spotlight on places still unlit by the sunshine of the nation’s prosperity.”
Among the newly announced efforts is an $8-million program, funded by several private companies, that will help develop school-to-career pathways for high school students unprepared for jobs in technology-driven markets--including computer programming and engineering.
Clinton also announced the launch of the Youth Opportunity Movement, a four-year, billion-dollar program that will provide grants to community programs helping youths stay in school and learn skills. The effort, headed by the Department of Labor, will also push the private sector to hire young people from needy communities and invest in youth programs.
Everyone benefits from such initiatives, Clinton told a round-table discussion at Southwest College. “Every time we hire a young person off the street in Watts and give him or her a better future, we are helping people who live in the ritziest suburb in America to continue to enjoy a rising stock market.”
Reaction to the Watts visit was decidedly mixed outside the sealed-off high school campus, where dozens of residents who came for a glimpse of Clinton were kept at a distance by a large security detail.
Some expressed a strong affection for a president they feel is concerned about the plight of the needy. Robert Stegall, who walked to the school from his home, said low interest rates and new federal lending programs have helped many people buy first homes. “He’s always doing something good for working-class people,” said Stegall, 78.
But Stegall and others also complained that there are few good-paying jobs in the area. Protesters from the Assn. of Community Organizations for Reform Now, an advocacy group for low- and moderate-income families, held a large sign reading: “President Clinton, It All Sounds Good. But Where Are the Living Wage Jobs?”
Students said they must travel hours on public transit--as far away as the Westside and the San Fernando Valley--for decent summer work.
Others wondered if Watts was again being used as a prop by a politician who would fail to deliver economic relief.
“I think he’s trying to salvage his political career and help his wife get started on hers,” said Amed Clinton, 27, noting that Hillary Clinton is simultaneously kicking off her U.S. Senate campaign.
The carefully controlled and choreographed Locke High visit, some objected, did not allow local residents to hear Clinton or offer ideas on what’s needed to break the cycle of impoverishment.
“If the community’s not here, it’s not serving any purpose. They could have held it downtown,” said Jethro Sutton, 75, who came to the school dressed in a suit and tie, but was turned away by security officers.
At Locke High, Clinton was escorted into a classroom where selected students demonstrated their technology lab. Later, at Southwest College, Clinton met with about 75 lawmakers, business leaders and students who had been invited to the round-table discussion.
The president’s trip to six of the most impoverished communities in the country took on the flair of a fast-moving political campaign. A closely coordinated administration attack pulled together the work of diverse federal agencies and the attention-drawing capacity of the presidency to focus on the large numbers of people and communities that have not realized the current economy’s rewards.
Across the country--in the green-hued Appalachian hollows of Hazard, Ky., the baked Badlands of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota and the grit of East St. Louis, Ill.--the president sought to meld the need for employment among the nation’s poorest residents with the demands of American business to find new markets for their products and new workers from a nearly fully employed national labor force.
“Government cannot do this alone, but business cannot be expected to go it alone,” he said of the need for government and business to share the responsibility for creating the jobs and preparing potential workers to fill them.
His tour was conducted at a pace like few other domestic journeys he has undertaken since the end of the 1996 campaign. It brought him at one time to a Walgreen’s in East St. Louis, Ill., at another to an emotional meeting in the rundown home of an impoverished member of the Oglala Sioux tribe in South Dakota and, as is Clinton’s wont, to a barbecue joint in Memphis and a late-night side trip to gaze upon Mt. Rushmore, S.D.
Throughout, the president made three points, as he did in Anaheim: American investors should recognize the opportunities available in distressed communities in urban centers and isolated rural settings; government incentives are available to encourage investment there; and administration-proposed legislation would give the same tax breaks, and investment guarantees, available to Americans investing in foreign development.
The information technology academies that are the centerpiece of the program Clinton announced Thursday are modeled on travel and tourism academies and financial services academies championed by Sanford Weill, chairman of Citigroup.
They are essentially schools within existing high schools to provide specialized training.
Weill, speaking at the Anaheim forum, said the programs have focused on young people who had a better than even chance to drop out of high school. Upon completion of the program, he said, 90% were now likely to attend two- and four-year colleges.
“If our country is to be the leader 50 years from now, we have to include everybody,” Weill said, stressing the need to find the factors that make it possible for young people from severely disadvantaged backgrounds to continue their education, and the motivation to do so.
Among those contributing are Lucent Technologies, offering $2.8 million, America Online, providing roughly $1 million, and AT & T, $1.4 million, the White House said.
Under the plan, as envisaged by its sponsors, 10 pilot sites for the training academies will be chosen by a year from September, serving perhaps 400 students. Forty schools would be added a year later, and the program would grow by 40 to 50 schools in subsequent years.
The existing programs built on training for the tourism and travel and financial services industries, the White House said, serve more than 20,000 high school students in 350 institutions in 37 states; two-thirds are identified as “at risk,” and 75% are from minority communities.
Thursday’s final leg of the tour came as the U.S. Commerce Department issued a report that found that an increasing “digital divide” separates people by both education and income measurements, putting those without high-technology skills at a disadvantage.
Clinton used stops in Los Angeles to focus on the need to train disadvantaged young adults.
About 10 million Americans under 24 have either dropped out or not advanced beyond high school, Clinton told a group of business leaders and lawmakers at Los Angeles Southwest Community College. Without training them, he added, trying to lure new businesses to neglected areas will be difficult.
“We can provide all these opportunities,” he said, “but if our young people don’t have an opportunity to learn and continue to learn, it won’t work.”
“We can ill-afford to have a generation of young people who may never know what it is to work,” said Secretary of Labor Alexis Herman, who was traveling with the president. “The only way to move America forward is to make sure we leave no one behind.”
Times staff writers Rich Connell and Phil Willon contributed to this story.