"The Crisis of South-Central Los Angeles,"by Allen J. Scott November/December 1993 issue of Poverty & Race
The civil disturbances that broke out in South-Central Los Angeles on April 29, 1992, were a short but expressive symptom of a deep and long-standing crisis of the inner city. The disturbances were a predictable outcome of a series of festering conditions in Los Angeles, where economic deprivation, social marginalization, and powerlessness exist cheek-by-jowl with extraordinary wealth, privilege, and opportunity. South-Central Los Angeles is a particularly con-centrated focus of this crisis, but the conditions that underlie the crisis recur in many other parts of the Greater Los Angeles region, and indeed in virtually every major U.S. city at the present time.
Immediately following the disturbances, a team of researchers was set up at UCLA's Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies to inquire into the social and economic situation in South-Central, and to develop suggestions that might help policy-makers begin to formulate effective approaches to solving the problems of the area and other places like it. The just-released report of this research team addresses five main issues (the names of chapter authors are shown in parentheses):
*Poverty and employment in Los Angeles' inner core (Paul Ong, with contributions from Evelyn Blumenberg and Jianling Li).
*Housing and community development (Jacqueline Leavitt and Allan Heskin). Health care and delivery (coordinated by E. Richard Brown, Carol Aneshensel, and Suzanne Pollock). Education and schools (coordinated by Jayne T. Darby).
*Political tensions and divisions in post-rebellion Los Angeles (Leobardo Estrada and Sylvia Sensiper).
If anything, the problems of South-Central Los Angeles have been intensifying over the last couple of decades, and in significant ways things are more desperate than they were even at the time of the Watts riots of 1965 as recorded in the McCone Commission report of the same year.
To begin with, the racial and ethnic mosaic of Los Angeles has become considerably more variegated in recent years. In 1970, racial and ethnic minorities accounted for 29% of the city's population, whereas in 1990 they accounted for 59%. Over the same period, the Latino population grew from 15% to 36%, and the Asian and Pacific Islander population grew from 3% to 11%. The African-American population has remained stable in proportional terms at around 11% in both 1970 and 1990. In Los Angeles' high-poverty census tracts-coinciding to a large degree with South-Central-the population of 1.6 million is composed almost entirely of racial and ethnic minorities: 62% Latino, 22% African-American, and 8% Asian and Pacific Islander. The competition among these different groups for jobs, housing, entrepreneurial opportunities, and political representation has exacerbated the area's already explosive socioeconomic conditions.
Poverty on the Rise
The Lewis Center report indicates that in 1970 the poverty rate in Los Angeles was 10.9%, but by 1990 it had grown to 15.1%. In 1990, African-American males earned 73% of median white male earnings, and Latino men earn just 47%. Unemployment rates in the core area are currently more than twice as high as they are in the rest of Los Angeles County, and rates of joblessness (which includes discouraged workers) reach levels of 30% and more, especially in African-American neighborhoods. South-Central, however, is not just a locus of jobless poor people (as represented above all by female-headed households), but also of the working poor, that is, employed people whose wages are so low that they remain below the poverty line. Ominously, wage levels in real terms have actually been falling over the last decade or so. Paul Ong estimates in his chapter that we would need to add 42,000 new jobs in South-Central in order to bring local unemployment rates down to the county average; and we would need to add 120,000 new jobs if the aim is to reduce joblessness to the county average.
These catastrophic economic conditions are intertwined with complex patterns of social breakdown and marginalization. As Leavitt and Heskin show, the housing situation in Los Angeles is one of the most problem-ridden in the nation. Indeed, Los Angeles ranks above any other metropolitan area in the United States on such measures as overcrowding, deteriorated physical conditions, and financial inaccessibility. Affordable housing is in persistently short supply, despite efforts of public agencies and a number of non-profit community development corporations. There are thirteen such corporations in South-Central Los Angeles, and these have now become, in effect, the main force behind the area's housing programs. They have also become the main hub of a widening circle of community activism under the coordinating umbrella of the Coalition of Neighborhood Developers.
In the matter of public health, too, Los Angeles has the dubious distinction of being one of the country's leading problem areas. It is characterized by exceptionally poor access to health care centers, low-quality health services, high incidences of chronic illnesses, teen pregnancies, substance abuse, and violence. More than 2.7 million people in Los Angeles have no medical insurance whatever, with a dominant proportion of these residents of South-Central. At the same time, the maldistribution of physicians and hospitals over the geographic area of Los Angeles makes it difficult for those individuals in South-Central who do have medical insurance to secure adequate service. Perhaps the most telling index of the crisis of health care in South-Central is the high incidence of vaccine-preventable diseases, as represented most dramatically by the measles epidemic currently sweeping through the area's population of African-American and Latino children.
South-Central Los Angeles' school system is similarly marked by intense problems and predicaments. Inner-city schools have inferior resources and employ less-qualified teachers than suburban schools, and they tend to have curricula that downplay academic achievement in favor of vocational training, such as typing, cosmetology, and woodworking. These problems have been accentuated by the white flight that has characterized the Los Angeles Unified School District since the 1960s, so that the District has gone from serving a predominantly white population to one that is now mainly African-American and Latino. In South-Central Los Angeles, more than half of all high school students eventually fail to graduate, and in some parts of the area the rate is considerably higher. Violence is also endemic in the area's schools. The net result of all of this is that the schools of South-Central consistently underperform in building the kinds of literacy and human capital that could enhance the employability and earning power of local residents.
Needed: Employment Programs
In large degree, the chronic persistence of all these inner-city ills can be ascribed to a fundamental failure to
create adequate employment opportunities for the area's residents, and-for a hard core of the unemployed-to construct a system of rising (as opposed to falling) expectations. Much of the rivalry and conflict between the various racial and ethnic groups that make up the area's population is likewise related to competition with one another for scarce resources. Estrada and Sensiper report that "while much of the tension of disenfranchisement is based in a language of ethnicity, it is more precisely an issue of economics and income." It was this view of the problem that encouraged the Rebuild LA Committee to focus on job-creation in and around South-Central as one of its primary goals. The Committee was set up on the recommendation of former Mayor Tom Bradley in the immediate aftermath of the disturbances, though in the period since its inception it has, at best, achieved only a modest record of success in moving toward its goals. In part, of course, the general public has demanded too much too soon from the Committee, and any expectation of a significant turn-around in the economic fortunes of South-Central after just a little more than a year's work is inevitably doomed to disappointment. The question may be raised, however, as to whether the Committee has the necessary vision, capacities, and executive power ever to transform South-Central into a model of inner-city economic growth and development.
Given the pervasiveness of inner-city decline throughout the United States, and its stubborn embeddedness in wider structures of political and economic disenfranchisement, it can be argued that purely local (i.e., case by case) efforts at solution of the problem are not likely to have much more than cosmetic effects. Nothing short of an all-out federally
directed attack on the problem of America's inner cities is in the end going produce tangible and durable solution That said, local agencies and organiza-tions most certainly have a critical role to play both in helping to fine-tune the application of broadly defamed policies to local conditions, and in dealing with the many idiosyncrasies of each particular case. One especially encouraging development in South-Central Los Angeles and other inner-city areas throughout America is the proliferation in recent years of an enormous number of self-help associations, cooperative organizations, and community coalitions focused on an extraordinary variety of social and economic development projects. Among the most conspicuous of these groups in South-Central Los Angeles today are Congresswoman Maxine Waters' Community Build and the Coalition of Neighborhood Developers (with the technical assistance provided by the Local Initiatives Support Corporation), though there are many, many others, and their number continues to grow.
The Clinton administration, it see is now preparing to confront many of the issues raised above. It may be that renewal of the federal commitment to deal with America's urban crisis, combined with the energizing and mediating capacities of the innumerable experiments in grassroots organizing that are now so widespread, may be able to turn the tide of neglect and decline that characterize places like South-Central Los Angeles. Failure to do so will lead quite certainly to further social polarization of American cities and further riots and rebellion on the part of the dispossessed.
Allen J. Scott is Director of the Lewis Center for Regional Policy Studies at the Univ. of California-Los Angeles. Scott and E. Richard Brown are editors of South-Central Los Angeles: Anatomy of an Urban Crisis, published by the Lewis Center, Grad. School of Architecture and Urban Planning, Univ. of Calif., Los Angeles, CA 90024-1467, 310/206-4417 (Working Paper No. 5, $15).
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