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Poorest of the Poor : 5 Predominantly Minority Los Angeles County Suburbs Rank at Low End Nationwide

June 06, 1989|JAMES M. GOMEZ | Times Staff Writer

Five cities in predominantly minority sections of Los Angeles County have been ranked among the poorest communities in the nation by a Chicago-based urbanologist whose survey has come under fire by local demographers and city officials.

The 23-page report on the 60 wealthiest and 15 poorest U.S. suburbs, prepared by Roosevelt University professor Pierre deVise, shows per capita yearly income for Cudahy, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, Compton and South El Monte ranging from $5,170 to $7,100.

The poorest community nationwide was Ford Heights, Ill., a mostly black suburb of Chicago, with a per capita income of $4,941, the report said.

"It's no surprise to us," Cudahy City Manager Gerald Caton said, adding that the survey adds nothing new to a previous study that deVise released several years ago. "There is no doubt that this is the poorest part of the county. We've known that for a long time."

But officials of South El Monte, which this year made deVise's list for the first time since he began preparing his occasional series of economic studies in 1979, harshly criticized the report.

"Who is this donkey?" asked South El Monte City Councilman Jim Kelly. "I'll have to send him a letter."

South El Monte City Manager Raul T. Romero also questioned the validity of the city's ranking. "This is not a city that's waiting to die," he said.

Report Called Flawed

Demographic experts contacted on Monday also criticized deVise's report, saying that it is flawed because his definition of a suburb does not reflect local perception.

In the report, deVise defined suburbs as "single or multiple adjacent municipalities, townships and unincorporated (U.S. Bureau of) Census designated places of 2,500 or more people in metropolitan statistical areas outside the largest city" of local influence.

Under that definition, for instance, pricey Beverly Hills becomes only the 57th wealthiest suburb in the nation, making local demographers and city officials wonder about the report's accuracy.

Among cities with populations of 25,000 or more, however, Beverly Hills, with a per capita income of $34,500, remains the nation's wealthiest suburb.

But other exclusive areas, such as Bel-Air, Pacific Palisades and Rolling Hills Estates, were left out of the survey altogether. The report did not recognize those areas as suburbs because they did not fit the definition that he said was drawn up along U.S. Census guidelines, deVise said.

"The report gives a distorted view," said Frank Hotchkiss, director of regional strategic planning for the Southern California Assn. of Governments. "Pacific Palisades should definitely have been in there."

"I honestly am sort of puzzled how he put (the survey) together," said Peter Morrison, a population researcher for the RAND Corp., a Santa Monica-based think tank. "There are substantial problems with that definition (of a suburb). The main problem is that many places that are referred to locally as suburbs were not taken into account (by deVise)."

Other Inaccuracies Seen

Caton and other city officials in the mostly Latino cities of Bell Gardens, Huntington Park and Cudahy said that while they agree with their low standing in the report, they also criticized the report for other apparent inaccuracies.

DeVise, using 1980 census figures, said that Bell Gardens is ranked the second-most-dense suburb in the nation. Actually, the most recent survey by the Los Angeles County Department of Regional Planning ranks nearby Maywood as the most dense city and Bell Gardens as the fifth, behind West Hollywood, Cudahy and Huntington Park, officials said.

And while deVise uses figures that show Cudahy to be 69% Latino, Caton said that at least 80% of Cudahy residents are Latino. Los Angeles Unified School District figures, which track ethnicity each year, has reported that 90% of Cudahy schoolchildren are Latino.

"He's using old figures," Cudahy Mayor Tom Thurman said. He also questioned deVise's definition of suburb and wondered why the urbanologist did not rank any more rural townships to identify overall poverty in the nation.

"Sure these suburbs are poor," Thurman said. "But compared to some hick town in Mississippi or Alabama, they would think we were fat cats."

And at South El Monte City Hall, which bills itself as the "City of Achievement," news of the ranking was met with bemused bewilderment. City officials questioned deVise's data, saying the 3.2-acre industrial city is a good place to live and work.

"It don't think we're in that bad of shape," Councilman Kelly said. "It's very sad to think we're the 15th poorest city."

Kelly, while acknowledging that the city has problems with unemployment and an influx of illegal aliens, took umbrage at deVise's assertion that the city is among those that represent the "American nightmare" of poverty.

Figures Could Be Dated

DeVise defended the report, but acknowledged in a telephone interview that his figures could be outdated.

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