L.A.’s Growing Pay Gap Looms as Political Issue : Poverty: Santa Monica considers minimum wage law and L.A. mayoral hopefuls weigh in on plight of working poor.


Los Angeles’ prototypical poor person is no longer a scruffy panhandler on the freeway offramp, or a skid row derelict camped beneath a blue tarp. Today’s poverty icon is a working mother, toiling eight hours or more a day at a job that does not pay enough to cover the rent, clothe the baby or provide a life of even minimal comfort.

That image is presented not by the radical left or organized labor. It’s the one that stares from a new advertisement soliciting donations for the United Way, a solidly centrist charity organization that balances a commitment to giving with strong, long-standing corporate relationships.

For leaders of that organization, however, the growing sense of one city breaking into two overcame any reluctance to offend.


“We felt the working poor were being ignored,” said Todd Rosin, the United Way official behind the ad. “These people are working, but they aren’t getting ahead. They’re having to choose: ‘Do I feed my kid, or do I go to the doctor?’ That choice is unacceptable.”

As the United Way’s campaign vividly demonstrates, the stubborn persistence and changing character of poverty today confronts Los Angeles’ leadership, flush from six years of economic expansion but bedeviled by a growing income disparity that undermines the region’s health. The widening gap is spurring new and controversial remedies and generating a surprisingly frank political debate.

One startling fact: Los Angeles’ 50 richest men and women are worth roughly $60 billion and are getting richer every year, while one out of every three children in the county is growing up in poverty--defined as a family of four that makes less than $16,450 a year. That percentage has steadily increased through the 1990s.

“It is,” says Antonio Villaraigosa, speaker of the California Assembly, “something out of Dickens.”

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky agrees.

“You look around you, people are on cruises. They’re working four-day weeks and taking three-day weekends. They’re owning second and third homes,” he said. “And then you have a growing mass of people who are at or below or just above the poverty level, even though they’re working one or two jobs. . . . You have the potential for serious social upheaval.”

The dichotomy between rich and poor already is playing out across the region in challenging and dismaying ways:


* It is illustrated by the struggles of airport security workers, most of whom make minimum wage, about $12,000 a year, in return for keeping the nation’s air travelers safe.

* It dominates the early run-up to the 2001 mayor’s race, as candidates and potential candidates, such as Villaraigosa and Yaroslavsky, have identified the problems of the working poor as the campaign’s leading issue.

* It divides Santa Monica, always a cutting-edge city in issues of poverty and social justice, where council members are considering what amounts to a municipal minimum wage law, a prospect that heartens labor advocates and traumatizes business interests.

* And it deeply troubles and conflicts Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, a Republican with free-market sympathies, but also a Roman Catholic raised in a tradition that champions the rights and dignity of working people.

Riordan is a staunch supporter of business who is reluctant to endorse the so-called living wage ordinances, which he fears will drive away jobs by setting minimum wages for companies that do business with the government. That same Riordan, however, pays a living wage at his downtown restaurant, urges other corporate bosses to follow his lead and insists in speech after speech that government’s actions must be judged on how well they serve the poor.

The city’s economic recovery, for which Riordan takes considerable credit, has helped create thousands of new jobs, but has perpetuated, and in some cases exacerbated, the city’s vast disparity in wealth.

To his critics, the upshot seems to be a policy of saying lots and doing little.

Has Riordan lived up to his own maxim, that government should serve the interests of the poor?

“Absolutely not,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, a leader of the Living Wage Coalition and active union organizer. “He hasn’t ever developed a strategy that helps raise the standard of living.”

Riordan Defends Record With Poor

Riordan’s defenders say his ability to affect poverty is highly limited--issues such as welfare and public health are largely beyond a mayor’s reach.

The mayor cites a long list of achievements, some directly focused on poverty, but most addressed to the broader topic of improving the quality of life for poor people. Today’s Los Angeles is safer and cleaner than the one Riordan inherited in 1993. It has more and better parks, more libraries with longer hours. All that helps to attract new business--and with it, jobs.

“By far the best thing you can do is improve the quality of life in communities,” Riordan said last week. “All the rest follows from that.”

The only real long-term answer, Riordan and others insist, is education. Poorly educated young people end up in low-wage jobs, and employers willing to pay for a well-educated work force avoid areas with bad school systems. With a real devotion to reforming Los Angeles city schools, Riordan and others believe that poverty could be addressed here.

If Los Angeles under Riordan has struggled with the paradox of working poverty amid prosperity, the contrast is even more striking in Santa Monica. There, minimum wage workers clean up after wealthy patrons in the city’s booming hotel business. Rooms can cost $450 a night; the workers who clean them are lucky to make more than $5.75 an hour.

Such glaring disparity has fueled what may be the region’s most ambitious and controversial attempt to close the income gap. A group of activists in Santa Monica is spearheading a campaign to have that city enact the state’s first municipal minimum wage, which would start at $10.69 an hour plus benefits. That’s the equivalent of about $22,000 a year.

It would apply to any business with 50 or more employees that is situated within the so-called coastal zone, a mile-wide band along the beach.

The business community is apoplectic.

“I call this the ‘leaving wage ordinance,’ because if it passes, businesses will be leaving,” said Tom Larmore, a Santa Monica lawyer who is chairing a special Chamber of Commerce committee to study the issue. “This would have a very, very severe impact. One of the things that many businesses would certainly consider and probably do is lay off employees.”

Along Santa Monica’s waterfront, hotel operators and managers generally decline to comment on the wages they pay, beyond grumbling off the record about the hardship that such a forced salary hike would cause them. They are not the only ones who might feel the law’s sting: The zone in which proponents want to see the wage law imposed includes at least two department stores, many retailers and a number of large restaurants.

With few exceptions, starting salaries at those places fall far below Santa Monica’s proposed minimum wage.

“The goal is to impact those businesses where the income disparity is the greatest,” said Vivian Rothstein, a longtime activist who is one of the leaders of the Santa Monica effort. “These are folks who are following the rules. They’re working their butts off . . . and they’re living in poverty. They can’t afford to feed their families.”

As for the suggestion that businesses will leave rather than pay the required wage, Rothstein and Janis-Aparicio scoff.

“Who’s going to leave a hotel with 90% occupancy on the beach?” Janis-Aparicio asked. “If they leave, 10 companies will be waiting to move in.”

The pressure on business also is justified, proponents say, because many of the businesses paying their workers minimum wage benefit by direct or indirect government subsidies. In Santa Monica, public money has helped pay for improvements along the beach and the Promenade. The city also chips in to promote Santa Monica around the country. All that draws visitors to local hotels, restaurants and stores.

Larmore calls that misleading and wrong. The taxpayer money that has paid for Santa Monica improvements and promotions largely is generated by the tourism industry, he noted. So the city would not have it to spend were it not for hotels and other businesses.

More importantly, he said, the effect of hiking wages for those companies would be to drive down demand for workers.

That means hotels and other affected companies would pay more for their people, but they’d employ fewer of them. “It actually is going to hurt the people they’re trying to help,” he said.

Early Issue in Mayoral Race

The hardest test in the quest to confront working poverty may be in the coming race for mayor of Los Angeles, a campaign that has started early and that, in large measure, will set priorities for the city as it enters the next century.

Poverty, as any political consultant will tell you, is not good politics.

The poor do not vote. The rich do. People do not like to be scolded for their affluence. And one dirty little secret of poverty is that it’s good for some people. Los Angeles is the rare city where middle-class people routinely have maids and gardeners. The abundance of poor people willing to work for low wages is what makes that possible. A real attack on poverty thus might make life more expensive for others.

All of that argues against income disparity and the poor playing a central role in any political campaign, much less one of such national significance as the Los Angeles mayor’s race.

And yet, already there are signs that the issue will not go away.

City Atty. James Hahn, by most accounts the front-runner in the mayor’s race, frequently addresses poverty, although often indirectly. His rhetoric generally addresses the topic in ethnic rather than class terms, but touches on some of the same notions--improving health care, transportation and education.

Yaroslavsky may or may not run for the city’s top job, but he already is speaking forcefully on the issue of class divisions. The county supervisor studied history and sees a chilling comparison between the divisions in American society at the beginning of the century with those here at the end. Nothing less than democracy itself is at stake, he argues.

“It’s a matter of human dignity, of valuing the worth of a human being as a part of society,” he said. “When people feel they’re not worth anything, they do desperate things. . . . Democracy will not work in an environment in which tens of millions of people are economically distressed.”

Yaroslavsky, who has supported the campaign to require county contractors to pay $8.32 an hour with benefits or $9.46 without, said he hopes the efforts here continue and are emulated elsewhere.

“If we have managed to improve the situation for the poorest of the working poor in this county, then we have accomplished something,” he said.

Then there’s Villaraigosa. Unabashedly liberal and pro-labor and seemingly intent on running for mayor, this is an issue made to order for the Assembly speaker. Already, he is leaning hard on it, regularly appearing at events in poor communities, sounding off on everything from homelessness to welfare reform to, most pointedly, the working poor.

“This is the preeminent social issue and the biggest challenge that we have as a city and as a society,” he said. “It’s essential for people like me to raise this issue, to show that it’s not just important to poor people. It’s important to all of us.”

Whether Villaraigosa or any candidate can get much traction with a direct appeal to tackle poverty is an open question.

In the meantime, however, labor activists say they intend to organize workers, living-wage backers intend to push the city of Santa Monica. And the United Way hopes over the next few months to draw broad public attention to the problem, taking the issue beyond the activists to a new audience.

“We’re not on a soapbox for the living wage,” Rosin said. “What we’re doing is painting a picture of reality.”


Poverty in L.A. County by the Numbers

More than 20% of Los Angeles County residents live below the official poverty line--$16,450 a year for a family of four. In 1990, that number was roughly 15%.

Roughly 6% of households bring in more than $150,000 in annual income, a higher percentage than the state or nation.

The median rent is $654 a month--or nearly $8,000 a year. Median homeowner housing cost is $943 a month--or roughly $11,000 a year.

An estimated 236,000 people are homeless.

One out of every three children lives in poverty, up from less than one in four in 1990.

43% of all Latino children live in poverty

33% of African American children live in poverty

21% of Asian American children live in poverty

21% of Anglo children live in poverty

Roughly 12% of elderly people live below the poverty level, an increase from about 9% in 1990.

2.7 million county residents, including one out of every four children, have no health insurance.

Sources: The United Way of Greater Los Angeles and Los Angeles County