Thursday, April 13, 2006

The Boom's a Bust

Former Philly reporter Steve Lopez has a great column in the LATimes, Income Gap More Like a Chasm, discussing the growing class/income disparity, which applies well beyond the city limits of LA. As he observes:

In the last week I've written about the quick recovery of an illegal immigrant who was shot in the chest while landscaping a yard in Inglewood, and a U.S.-born high-rise security guard who makes so little money she can only afford a phone booth-size room in downtown Los Angeles.

Some readers saw an obvious connection:

The illegal immigrant and thousands like him have depressed wages for legal blue-collar residents like her.

There's certainly some truth in that. If you've got an illegal workforce willing to work for peanuts, and employers happy to exploit their desperation, wages at the bottom end are likely to stay low.

But let's forget illegal immigration for a moment, because if you ask me, we've got other economic problems in Southern California, and here's a thumbnail sketch:

Despite a relatively healthy economy on paper, middle-income jobs are as scarce as intelligent screenplays, and that has more to do with the death of manufacturing than the influx of illegal immigrants.

* * * *

What this means is that we've got $20-million houses offering spectacular views down the hill and into the Third World. If not for the fact that it takes forever to get anywhere on the bus, we'd have a revolution on our hands.

So the question I've been asking public officials and civic leaders is what we can do about the income gap that runs like a fault line through the land, dividing the haves from the help.

I want to stand up and clap when Jack Kyser of the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp. lays some of the blame on the big-box planning model. He says we do not need — repeat, IX-NAY— any more Targets and Kmarts, or any other Coliseum-size discount joints.

Not only do those places devour what little land is still available, but the jobs they provide are lousy, and it's not as if consumers have nowhere else to turn for tube socks and toilet paper.

* * * *

Kent Wong of UCLA's Center for Labor Research agrees that we need to keep trying to replace the kinds of jobs that were lost in Southern California when aerospace and manufacturing went belly up. But he also knows that the service economy is here to stay, and that means we have to find ways to elevate the standard of living for bellhops, janitors, security guards, nannies, maids, construction workers and waiters.

"We have a situation like we did in the 1930s, when auto manufacturing, mining and steel work were poverty jobs," Wong said. Unionization moved those workers into the middle class, he says, and it can push service employees in the same direction.

Los Angeles County has 55,000 security guards, said Bruce Stenslie of the Los Angeles Workforce Investment Board.

"If you could move them from $8.50 an hour to $10.50, $11, $12, with health benefits," as Local 1877 of the Service Employees International Union is trying to do with security guards, "you'd have an enormous impact on the economy," he said.

If you hear a sucking sound, it's mass hyperventilating by the fat and happy building and business owners who employ the security guards. But before you shed too many tears for the captains of industry, consider the billions of dollars in corporate welfare shelled out each year across the land, not to mention congressional largesse on offshore flimflam and other tax shelters and loopholes.

Beyond that, a living wage translates into more people contributing and fewer people on the dole.
This may explain why the supposed economic goodtimes aren't being celebrated, despite the fact that we keep being told that they are here. Where? Over here? No, over there. Somewhere.

No comments: