To explore the causes of poverty in the San Fernando Valley and what the future may hold, The Times asked several community and political leaders and social service officials to explore the subject in a round-table discussion.
The participants: Jack Kyser, chief economist with the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County; Lew Hollman, senior attorney with San Fernando Valley Neighborhood Legal Services Inc; Bobbi Fiedler, former U.S. representative and a Northridge resident; U.S. Rep. James Rogan (R-Glendale), and Sandy Bihlmeyer, program director for MEND (Meet Each Need with Dignity), a social service organization in Pacoima. Their remarks were edited for length.
Times: Let's start by asking why we see an increase in poverty in the Valley.
Jack Kyser: Everybody talks about "the great California recession," but the reality is probably the great Los Angeles County recession, because about 70% to 75% of the job loss in the state occurred right in this county. Some pretty fundamental jobs were lost. The other thing that we saw is that the population of the county has continued to increase. Right now, the official estimate is about 9.2 million people in the county, and people who follow demographic trends will tell you that's an undercount by about 5% to 7%--and this is undocumented immigration.
Now you're seeing the economy rebound, and we have about 8% unemployment in the county. Yet business is telling us they can't find employees with the proper skills. So you've seen this very fundamental shift in the economic base. It's growing again, but [there] is this terrible tendency to have high-skilled/high-wage jobs and low-skilled/low-wage jobs--but not much in the middle. Even in the middle range in jobs, you will need more skills than you used to. I think we're probably on the cutting edge of trying to come up with proper solutions to this problem.
Bobbi Fiedler: Our [congressional] delegation has not been doing an aggressive enough job to make sure that we keep those [aerospace] jobs here. They're slipping into other parts of the country. The work is still substantially there. But it's left this area. The consequence is that you've got a lot of small mom-and-pop operations--but not enough jobs for larger and larger numbers of people.
James Rogan: I was wondering if I could get a sense that people feel that California's relatively high tax rates--and other factors, such as workers' comp--have driven many of the businesses out of the region. And when I say relatively high, I mean vis-a-vis our Western competitors that have been moving in a different direction.
Kyser: These other states are continuing to very aggressively solicit our economic base. I think if you would talk to any small businessperson, they would tell you that they'll get a letter or two a month from these other states. The other thing that we have seen is the federal government will come up with programs supposedly to solve the problem. They were supposed to have this program that would help us with the aerospace/defense downsizing. What we got was a very small amount of money with so many strings and requirements that it basically wasn't worth it. I think that's what government has to look at when they craft these programs.
Lew Hollman: I'm sure many of those governmental factors have some impact. But it seems to me in the longer run, one of the problems is the changing needs of industry in terms of what skills they want from the work force. Peter Drucker writes, for example, about how we're moving to a knowledge-based system where what companies need are people who are educated, flexible, capable of making decisions--and capable of educating themselves through the course of their career.
We've absorbed massive changes in the workplace before, but it was much easier to translate skills from agriculture into heavy industry [with] very little training time. During World War II, my father worked in a steel mill in West Virginia. They pulled people who had third-grade educations out of the hills. Within a generation, [they] were out of poverty. Literally [their] first pair of shoes were steel-toed boots that they were issued by the company. We no longer have the ability to do that, and I think it's really critical that we address education and skills development for a long-term solution.
Kyser: I agree, because as I say, we have had firms that have come to us and said, we can't find workers with these skills. We have this huge pool of unemployed people and a lot of them out of aerospace. But they don't have the right skills. A key thing that we see is linking the training providers with business, one on one.
The Times: How do you accomplish that, given the bureaucracy of our public school system?