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By EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON
State and local officials congratulated themselves in December when government figures showed that employment was at the highest level in seven years in Los Angeles County.
But the bad news is that many in South Central Los Angeles are still unemployed.
In a recent issue of the scholarly journal Economic Development Quarterly, a team of researchers published the results of a survey of 4,000 L.A. County households assessing the employment impact of the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
The researchers found that thousands of black and Latino workers in South Central Los Angeles are still out of work because of the economic carnage of the riots. While about 100,000 jobs were lost as a result of the crisis, the report estimates that rebuilding efforts resulted in the creation of only about 26,000 jobs meaning a net loss of 74,000 jobs.
Previously published data indicate that more than 1,000 businesses were destroyed, with damages estimated at $550 million. More than 1 million persons in the county were affected by the riots.
The report shatters the popular notion that the riot's economic fallout impacted only South Central Los Angeles, that a vigorous rebuilding effort by private and government agencies restored most of the economy and lost jobs in the area, that the robust economic recovery in Los Angeles County during the last year or so have put most of the people who lost their jobs back to work, and that the residents of the riot-torn neighborhoods have benefited the most from the rebuilding efforts.
I know from my personal experience working in the area and talking with business owners that economic dislocation and race-related fears are still a major problem. On the fifth anniversary of the riots this past April, 200 or more stores still had not been rebuilt. Many didn't or couldn't rebuild due to lack of money, concern over safety or the inability to get loans.
Many of the business owners were casualties of a failure by the federal government and private industry to deliver on their over-ambitious promise to provide $5 billion for small-business loans, home construction, increased social services and recreation programs in South Central Los Angeles.
Rebuild L. A., charged with securing funds for business and housing development in South Central Los Angeles, closed its doors in September 1996 after failing to prod public and private agencies to pony up the dollars needed to completely remake the riot-scarred neighborhoods.
The economic woes of the area were worsened by the gargantuan federal cuts in defense, corporate downsizing, and the flight of manufacturing industries from Southern California.
Many of the workers displaced by the riots, the report notes, have been hit hard by the realities of color and class. Many of the displaced workers had marginal skills and education. Without a major commitment of government and corporate funds for training and education, they will remain virtually unemployable.
Then there's the question of race. Some employers, because of fear and racial bias, have refused to hire black and Latino males. While more than 26,000 jobs have been created since the riots in South Central Los Angeles as result of the rebuilding efforts, the report concluded that non-Latino whites and residents of the non-riot areas got nearly all of these jobs, while blacks and Asians got the fewest.
And of the nearly 40 percent of those who lost their jobs as a direct result of the riots and were still not working in 1996, nearly all were blacks and Latinos.
Despite the gloomy picture for many minority workers, it would be a mistake to view South Central Los Angeles as a wasteland of economic rot and social decay. There have been several positive changes since the riots signaling that some economic improvements are underway.
- There are more women- and minority-owned businesses in Southern California than in any other area of the nation.
- There has been a noticeable increase in the construction of low- and moderate-income housing in South Central Los Angeles. New single-family homes and apartments have been built on several burned-out sites. Several major banks and S & Ls; have publicly committed more funds for minority-owned housing and business loans.
- The Los Angeles City Council unanimously approved a Community Redevelopment Agency plan to renovate buildings, clean up and beautify streets, and secure more funding for small-business loans in the Crenshaw and Slauson-Vermont areas. The non-profit community group Operation HOPE is seeking $50 million for home lending, and the Community Development Bank has drawn up a $400 million plan for federal funding for more small businesses.
- The plunge in the crime rate in Los Angeles County has been even more dramatic in South Central Los Angeles. This has made some corporations more willing to invest in the area. Several major grocery-store chains and retailers have announced ambitious plans to build new outlets and to hire mostly residents of the area.
While this is welcome news, even greater efforts must be made by city officials and those in private industry to lay to rest the post-riot jitters that many business owners and corporate officials still have about South Central Los Angeles, and to halt the damaging racial and ethnic balkanization of L.A. As the report makes clear, social turmoil and economic dislocation ultimately affect everyone that lives and works in Los Angeles County.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is the author of "The Assassination of the Black Male Image." He can be heard on KPFK-FM and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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