The Two Worlds of Los Angeles | The Nation


The Two Worlds of Los Angeles

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Marc Cooper
Marc Cooper, a Nation contributing editor, is an associate professor of professional practice and director of...

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At the biggest Democratic event of the campaign season, Obama argued that the coming election is a choice between the past and the future rather than a referendum on his first two years in office.

He'll probably fend off J.D. Hayworth, but in order to win he's lost most of his principles.

Welfare Warfare

Fernando Guerra of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles argues that as the city's average wealth indicators have declined, the political establishment has utterly failed to provide an institutional response. "In every policy area it is assumed Los Angeles is still a middle-class city because those policies are made by middle-class people like me," he adds. "We don't want to use a class analysis or recognize the real level of poverty because it would lead to policies we don't like." The result of that denial is policies that either ignore or punish the poor--or both.

Bob Erlenbusch, who heads the grassroots LA Coalition to End Hunger and Homelessness--a group that has shown great political effectiveness on unpopular issues--passionately agrees. Los Angeles remains the homeless capital of America, with 50,000-80,000 people on the county streets every night. "Just like fifteen years ago," he says. "The only difference is that nowadays no one any longer cares." He adds, "Every day the stock market goes up, the Nasdaq goes up, everyone watches Who Wants to Be a Millionaire?, and yet every day there are more homeless. The reaction isn't 'I think there might be a link between the two.' Instead, it's more like 'What the hell is wrong with those people?' Hence, you get the punitive policy."

And in Los Angeles, no policy is more punitive than that which regulates the General Relief program, the last, tenuous line of government assistance. Administered by the county--in this case by a putatively "liberal" 3-to-2 majority of LA County supervisors--GR, as the program is known, is available to indigent adults without children. If you are a penniless adult in Los Angeles, the county will grant you $221 a month, exactly one dollar more than the payment level of 1984--provided, that is, you perform twenty hours a week of workfare. Little additional compassion reigns in the CalWorks program, California's new "reformed" welfare system, under which a single mom with two kids is now granted around $630 a month--again, with a busywork requirement and plenty of new rules. Of the 160,000 families on CalWorks assistance in LA County, says Erlenbusch, at any given moment 30,000-35,000 of them are being sanctioned. "Because they are often homeless and have lost some paper or failed to file some report, or didn't show up to the Job Club, they are temporarily kicked off," he says. After five years, you are disqualified from further aid--forever. Erlenbusch points out that these limits first come into effect in 2003. He asks, "Just what is LA County going to do then when all these women and their children are timed out and dumped literally into the streets?"


The Politics of Poverty


Even if Erlenbusch's darkest fears don't materialize, the recent history of Los Angeles offers little evidence of a political class or a business community willing to recognize--let alone accommodate--the poor, who suffer what seems like a permanent crisis of representation. There was that moment of hope in the seventies when a cross-class, multiracial coalition brought a self-effacing black LAPD officer, Tom Bradley, into the mayor's office. But Bradley quickly made a pact with elite business interests and devoted his administration to forging a "world-class city"--focusing on downtown commercial development, the airport and the harbor. All this while Los Angeles was being stripped of its industrial base and of the union jobs that supported many African-American households.

By the end of his tenure in the early nineties, Bradley's presence had faded into little more than a ghostly rumor. It was under his administration that the city blew apart in 1992. In the midst of those riots, Bradley's multiracial coalition exploded too. His successor, the moderate Republican, multimillionaire Richard Riordan, seemed to have done more for the poor before he got elected--his charitable donations to schools had been significant. But elected on the rather martial post-riot slogan "Tough Enough to Turn LA Around," Riordan quickly turned his back on the bottom half of the city. City Hall fumbled and failed to secure federal grants set aside for post-riot construction. And the much ballyhooed Rebuild LA scheme, aimed at bringing billions of investment into scarred South Central, never materialized.

The global economy has even eroded what was once LA's visible native corporate elite, a development symbolized by the fact that the Los Angeles Times is now being run out of Chicago. As a result, the WASPish noblesse oblige toward the poor that marked downtown politics has vanished. While a business-based so-called Committee of 25 once acted as LA's invisible government, today a circle of fat cats--like developers Eli Broad and Ed Roski--has grown up around the Mayor. They regularly work in tandem with him, not on high-minded civic improvement projects but rather on juicy, self-serving business deals like the construction of the Staples Center and the funding of Riordan's various political causes. This led one local left-of-center pundit to yearn openly for a more effective ruling class. "Most cities have an elite that are financially and to a certain degree emotionally invested in their city," says Harold Meyerson. "But in Los Angeles the elite are different. They are disconnected from the physical center of the city, and they are absorbed instead either in their own pursuits or in national politics, which they find more interesting. I suspect there are more people in Brentwood who regularly call the White House than who call City Hall."

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