A pair of just-released studies point to a sharp rise in the number of working poor in L.A. County during the 1990s, a rise that has persisted despite the four-year economic boom the county is now enjoying.

One of the studies, released last month by the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, shows the number of working poor in L.A. County has increased 34 percent since 1990, to 1.1 million. Contrary to the popular belief that the working poor tend to be young, the study found that the most pronounced increase in the ranks of L.A.'s working poor took place among adults ages 36 to 50, traditionally prime earning years.

The other study, released over the weekend by the California Budget Project, shows that the percentage of L.A. County workers earning poverty-level wages jumped from 25 percent in 1989 to 31 percent in 1994 and 34 percent last year. What's more, the study found that the median hourly wage for L.A. County workers, when adjusted for inflation, fell 15 percent between 1989 and 1999, more than double the 6.6 percent decline statewide.

"The plight of the working poor in L.A. is worse than California as a whole, and California is worse than the U.S. as a whole," said David Runsten, an economist with the UCLA School of Public Policy and Social Research and a co-author of the LAANE study. "What's more, unless there is some significant intervention, the direction we're heading in is toward more of these low-wage jobs."

Both studies point out that the occupations adding the most workers to their ranks in the past decade, and those expected to grow the most over the next decade, pay only slightly above the minimum wage.

However, other recent studies paint a different picture of the future of low-wage jobs in L.A. One such study, from the Public Policy Institute of California (see story on page one), indicates that low-income minorities are leaving the region in increasing numbers, in search of jobs in lower-cost areas like Las Vegas, Arizona and Texas.

The study's author, Hans Johnson, expects that out-migration to accelerate in the years ahead as low-wage jobs in the garment industry and other low-wage sectors continue to be shifted to Latin America and Asia.

Whatever the future holds, the LAANE study says there are about 1.1 million low-wage workers in L.A. County now. And, the report says, the growth in these low-wage workers has been disproportionately high among middle-aged workers, between 36 and 50 years old.

Runsten said that one possible explanation for this rapid increase is that low-wage workers aren't moving up the income ladder and can't escape "dead-end, low-wage jobs."

But others say this merely reflects the fact that many low-income workers who arrived here 10 to 15 years ago have tended not to move around, focusing instead on making sure their children get better jobs.

The LAANE study also found that the largest number of working poor 245,000 is in the manufacturing sector, with 90,000 of those working in the garment industry. Retail was a close second with 218,000 working poor, half of those people working in restaurants and bars. Personal services including hotel workers and domestics came in third, with 98,000 in the ranks of the working poor.

Despite its reputation for high-wage jobs, the construction sector has roughly 80,000 working poor, according to the LAANE study.

"It really shows the dual nature of construction," said Jack Kyser, chief economist for the L.A. County Economic Development Corp. "Union construction workers are very well paid, but then there are the people on street corners getting day-laborer jobs."

Many of these people are recent immigrants, a fact borne out by the disproportionately high number of Latinos among the working poor at 73 percent, almost twice the 40 percent Latino representation in the overall workforce.

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