THE BLOG
12/21/2011 12:30 pm ET | Updated Feb 20, 2012

Southern California's Broken Economic Ladder

Southern California is in serious decline and the future of the great world megalopolis that stretches from the northern reaches of metro Los Angeles through the large and rapidly growing communities to the south and across the Mexican border is under severe threat.

A much bleaker picture of joblessness and opportunity in Southern California exists than political leaders have recognized. A new UCLA study finds not only a threatened middle class but also many more people clinging to the bottom of the state's social and economic ladder. Issued by the Civil Rights Project/Proyecto Derechos Civiles, the LASANTI Project report looks at opportunity and equity in the vast 150-mile-long urbanized corridor of Southern California that runs from Los Angeles to greater Tijuana. Inclusive of underemployment rates -- percentages of workers who hold less than fulltime jobs because they cannot find fulltime work -- rather than just the numbers of unemployed, the report provides a more complete measure of the health of the labor market and highlights its ties to California's educational failures.

Southern California, one of the world's largest and most diverse urban complexes, is rapidly becoming a region of profound economic and geographic polarization. Joblessness has more than doubled during the recession and it is extremely high for black and Latino males. In addition to unemployment, the report reveals, for example, that in September 2011 in Los Angeles County 25% of Latinos and 34% of African Americans were underemployed -- forced to accept part-time work. The former white majority of Southern California has become a minority and we are failing to give millions of nonwhite youth the education they must have to survive and sustain families in years to come. The future of this region belongs to what is already a 75% nonwhite population in Southern California's public schools. Yet the good low skill jobs in manufacturing on the U.S. side of the border are now largely gone, a substantial number lost to the factories in Northern Baja but many also to Asia. The many construction jobs which once flourished during the housing boom have collapsed in one of the nation's most spectacular implosions. Southern California is firing many thousands of its teachers and has slashed state funds for college and created soaring tuitions and severely diminished student services just as the job market is contracting.

The rich get richer and the poor get poorer in Southern California. Analysis of the California Budget Project shows that the average inflation-adjusted income of the top 1% of California's taxpayers increased by over 50% over the past two decades (1987-2009). In contrast, the average income of Californians in each of the bottom four fifths of the distribution lost purchasing power and people in the bottom fifth, mostly nonwhite, have seen a wrenching decline of over 19%.

For the African American communities that always live in recession conditions, there is now a depression. For Latinos, who have had high levels of employment in menial jobs that do not pay much the situation is desperate. Things are especially bad for men of color, a great many of whom are in an unforgiving and intensely competitive job market without even a high school education.

It is time for emergency help. We need to do what was done during the Great Depression and even during the 1970s under the public service employment programs in the administrations of Presidents Nixon, Ford, and Carter -- to give those excluded from opportunity some connections, useful experience, and hope. We need expanded Job Corps, Conservation Corps, and a Neighborhood Youth Corps. President Obama's jobs bill putting teachers and public safety workers back on the job is a good idea and urgently needed, but much more will be required to reach the Latino, African American and poor white workers whose lives have been shattered by the recession. Economic research on the Carter administration's version of public service employment shows that it reached a diverse and disadvantaged population while providing needed public services, and brought into the labor force many who would have been otherwise excluded. This program, responding to much smaller recessions, reached a peak of 725,000 jobs in 1978.

For Southern California, this is not a sad story about the margins of our society but rather it is a tragic story about the center of our future society, in our vast and immensely productive region. We need urgent action at all levels of government and within our major institutions to refocus on education and substantially raise the numbers of those who graduate from high school and college -- to make this a fundamental goal -- and to put the workers whose time and talents are now wasted and atrophying back to work.

For more information on the LASANTI Project go to: www.civilrightsproject.ucla.edu

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