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Nation’s Mayors Put Spotlight on Poverty

Times Staff Writers

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who leads a city where thousands of working families live in poverty, believes he can help the poor by building affordable housing, strengthening job training and reforming the much-maligned public schools -- ideas that have been tried elsewhere with limited success.

Today, his steps and those advanced in other cities will be on the table when mayors from across the nation converge on Los Angeles to strategize about a pernicious problem that defies a quick fix.

Although local government leaders say they can’t do much about the underlying causes of poverty -- such as job cuts and soaring home prices -- economists, labor organizers, affordable-housing advocates and others say cities have a number of tools that can help.

At the very least, the gathering of mayors can cast national attention on a problem that, by many measures, is growing worse.

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As head of a poverty task force for the U.S. Conference of Mayors, Villaraigosa scheduled today’s session to highlight what researchers see as a widening gap between rich and poor -- one that is pronounced in places populated by vast numbers of immigrants with limited education and minimal job skills.

“Our goal as mayors is to raise this issue around urban poverty to create a national debate about what we need to do,” Villaraigosa said. “We’ve got to strengthen and grow the middle class.”

Los Angeles epitomizes a kind of urban poverty in which the poor -- day laborers, hotel workers, taxi drivers and convenience store clerks, among others -- work two or three jobs and still confront agonizing daily choices about whether to put food on the table, have warm clothing or get decent medical care.

By one estimate, 1.4 million of Los Angeles’ 3.8 million residents are “working poor,” a category that would include a family of two adults and two children earning $38,000 a year or less.

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Experts who study poverty recommend a range of solutions, some of them controversial.

Some cities, for example, require developers to set aside a portion of their projects for affordable housing or contribute to a housing trust fund. At least 400 U.S. cities have so-called inclusionary zoning laws, but developers have successfully resisted the idea in Los Angeles.

Also, municipal leaders can coordinate workforce training programs with growing industries, as Villaraigosa hopes to do with jobs in healthcare and construction.

Some cities have also used their regulatory powers to require that developers pay higher wages, as Los Angeles has done on a few large projects, including Staples Center.

Transportation systems could be updated to give workers greater access to jobs. In Los Angeles, that would mean linking neighborhoods in the southeast corners of the city with employment growth occurring in the northwest.

Officials could also crack down on the so-called informal economy, the cash-only sector that siphons tax income from municipal coffers and leaves workers without job protections. In Los Angeles, that informal sector is growing much faster than the legitimate economy, experts say.

“How do we use the power of local government to create a new middle class? That’s the real challenge,” said Madeline Janis-Aparicio, a member of the city’s Community Redevelopment Agency board and executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy. “We need to use the full extent of our democratic powers to lift people out of poverty.”

A generation ago, prosperity seemed to flow naturally to Los Angeles and other California cities. The state’s poverty rate was below the national average, and high-wage union jobs in aerospace and other heavy manufacturing industries produced a thriving middle class.

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Those good jobs began to disappear in the 1980s, and the losses accelerated after 1990, when the aerospace industry collapsed with the end of the Cold War.

More than 1 million skilled workers left L.A. County in the ‘90s, says Dan Flaming, a former county demographer who runs the Economic Roundtable, a nonpartisan research group.

In their place came an influx of immigrants, largely from Mexico and Central America, many without high school educations.

They took low-wage jobs in garment factories and restaurants; they cleaned office high-rises for cut-rate contractors; they became the region’s nannies and gardeners and housekeepers.

Now immigrants outnumber the native born in prime working-age populations in L.A. The numbers helped drive California’s poverty rate above the national average, straining housing, education and healthcare at a time when federal support was shrinking, said Long Beach Mayor Beverly O’Neill, who chairs the U.S. Conference of Mayors and will be among a dozen chief executives attending today’s meeting.

Mayors from Fresno, North Miami and Macon, Ga., among other places, will focus on three areas: education, jobs and financial security for poor families.

“We’re specifically trying to find different thoughts about poverty in light of today’s world,” O’Neill said. “There certainly is an awareness of the need.”

Los Angeles has taken some steps in recent years to address poverty. In 1997, the city was among the first in the country to adopt a living-wage ordinance, which set a higher wage floor for all contractors doing business with the city. The ordinance significantly boosted pay for an estimated 10,000 workers. Since then, hundreds of cities and counties across the country have adopted such laws, some of them far more sweeping than the Los Angeles model.

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Villaraigosa also has pumped tens of millions of dollars into a fund to provide more affordable housing for the homeless and low-income workers.

His advisors, meanwhile, are working on several initiatives that would help low-wage workers move into apprenticeship programs and jobs in construction, nursing and other industries.

“If we invest in training, we know that the people trained will be hired,” said Larry Frank, deputy mayor for neighborhood and community services.

For now, Villaraigosa appears to have the backing of the city’s business community, whose leaders are keen on his ideas about job training and education. They believe the key to easing poverty lies in making Los Angeles more business-friendly.

“The reality is that investment is ... a first step to job creation,” said Carol Schatz, president of the Central City Assn., a business advocacy group. “If you don’t attract the capital, you don’t have a chance of creating those union jobs.”

Public policy experts give Villaraigosa high marks for making poverty a priority, even as they point out the delicate balance he must strike between the often-competing interests of labor and big business.

“He’s staking his political future on solving a problem that a lot of mayors give up on,” said Peter Dreier, a public policy professor at Occidental College and director of the school’s Urban and Environmental Policy Program.

“There are a lot of easier roads on which to build a national political profile than to tackle homelessness and poverty in your backyard. I think it’s a statement about his core values,” the professor added.


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