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L.A.'s Growing Economic Gap: A Need For Equity

South Los Angeles Street
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Rising rents. Stagnant wages. Homelessness. Gentrification. Today's big stories in Los Angeles have a common thread:  a gap in social and economic equity. How we solve these problems is a big question and one that can't be answered unless we understand how inequity has divided Los Angeles. That's where someone like Jennifer Ito comes into the picture.

Ito is the research director for the USC Program of Environmental and Regional Equity (PERE). She looks at the demographics-- all those numbers pertaining to the ethnic and economic make-up of a place-- and makes sense of them. She has co-authored studies, like "Talkin' 'Bout Our Generations: Data Deliberation, and Destiny in a Changing America" and "Linking Innovation with Inclusion: Demography, Equity and the Future of San Diego."

Jennifer Ito, PERE Director
Jennifer Ito, PERE Director

More recently, at PERE, researchers have been looking at the demographic shifts in Los Angeles and how that's affected social and economic equity. "An Equity Profile of the Los Angeles Region," funded by the Weingart Foundation and PolicyLink, breaks down the numbers and illustrates where the biggest gaps in equity are. Knowing this information can help shape the county's future.

What the profile found is enlightening and it often contradicts the perceptions that people have of Los Angeles. The summary of the "Equity Profile" explains that 73% of Los Angeles' population is comprised of people of color and that it will be majority Latino by 2020. But, what it also found was that the surge in population growth that happened in the 1980s hasn't continued to the present day.

Moreover, what the profile reports is that, in recent years, the population of Asian Angelenos has increased by 22% and more than half of that growth has been through immigration. Meanwhile, the Latino Angeleno population has increased by 13% and that's primarily people of Latino heritage who were born in the U.S. All other groups, the profile says, have had declining population in the Los Angeles area.

Source: An Equity Profile of the Los Angeles Region
Source: An Equity Profile of the Los Angeles Region | Source: An Equity Profile of the Los Angeles Region

But, the profile doesn't just look at ethnic demographics. It looks at economic ones too and that's where some of the misconceptions about Los Angeles are revealed. In truth, the profile shows, job growth in Los Angeles has been lagging since 1979 and, since 1990, poverty has been higher than average here. In fact, the profile notes, Los Angeles was found to have the 7th highest level of income inequality in the country and the report states that 18.4% of locals live below the poverty line.

While there isn't just one cause for this, there is one that the report highlights: declining "middle-wage jobs." There's been a significant decline in available work at this level. Meanwhile, low and high wage jobs have increased. With that in mind, you can see why the divide between the rich and the poor is growing.

But, there's more to it than just the number of available jobs. The "Equity Profile" also crunches the data to show how social and economic inequality by race, is impacted by the local job market.  The report shows not only that African-American and Latino residents are more likely to live below the poverty line-- and that Latinos are more likely to be considered "working poor-- than white residents, but that employment opportunities and wages aren't necessarily increasing with education levels. Moreover, the profile notes that women of color are earning less regardless of their education level.

Ito and the researchers at PERE pull the data so that policymakers and other big thinkers can figure out a way to build a better future. This is bound to have an effect on someone like Marqueece Harris-Dawson. He's the Los Angeles City Councilmember for the 8th district, which covers South Los Angeles. Harris-Dawson is the author of Proposition HHH, the $1.2 billion bond to create housing for the homeless that passed in the November 2016 election. Equity is part of Harris-Dawson's platform. One of his projects is CD 8 Clean and Safe Streets, a program designed to make more use of city services for maintaining the streets in the neighborhood.

Marqueece Harris-Dawson, 8th District Councilmember
Marqueece Harris-Dawson, 8th District Councilmember 

Last March, Harris Dawson was part of a panel at the Weingart Foundation's "Achieving Equity" event in Los Angeles. There, he spoke about L.A.'s past, where money often funneled into the wealthier parts of town, leaving low-income areas without key resources. That changed, he says. But, he added, that's not how equity is achieved because not every neighborhood needs the same amount of funding for the same purpose. Data, he notes, can help the powers that be figure out who needs what and that can make a huge different in how the city continues to develop. "Equity is a value on the one hand," he told the crowd, "but, on the other, it is a practice."

This story was originally published on August 3, 2017.

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