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Mayor Is Heading Panel on Poverty

In Washington, Villaraigosa tells fellow city leaders the poor are 'losing ground to the escalating cost of energy, tuition, medical care.'

January 26, 2006|Patrick McGreevy | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa convened a national task force on poverty Wednesday, telling mayors from around the country that a new strategy is needed to recognize the economic dangers facing the working poor.

Villaraigosa said during a session of the United States Conference of Mayors that the old way of thinking -- that people in poverty are victims of their own lack of direction or apathy -- must be replaced by concern for families who are poor despite being employed.

"We know that most poor people in America today work, and we know that a growing number of working Americans who we don't technically define as poor are dancing on the razor's edge of subsistence," Villaraigosa said.

The task force, he said, will address "the gulf between those at the very top of the economic ladder, who are earning more and doing better than they ever have, and the growing number of Americans who are working harder and slipping back."

By focusing on the working poor, government leaders must grapple with issues such as making housing affordable, increasing the minimum wage and improving schools so children have a chance to escape poverty, Villaraigosa told an audience of more than 1,000 mayors, government officials and business leaders.

The working poor are "losing ground to the escalating cost of energy, tuition, medical care and child care," the mayor said.

Much of the conference was spent discussing how Gulf Coast cities were devastated by hurricanes Katrina and Rita and how local officials felt let down by the federal and state responses to the disaster.

"As mayors, I think we can all agree that we saw reflections of all our cities in the faces of the people stranded on the rooftops of the Lower 9th Ward," Villaraigosa said.

As head of the task force, Villaraigosa gains a national leadership role on a major issue, other mayors said, adding that they have been impressed so far with what they have seen from the mayor of the nation's second-largest city.

And on Tuesday, Villaraigosa will deliver the Democrats' Spanish-language response to the president's State of the Union address. The mayor's comments will be carried on Spanish-language television networks. Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine will deliver the Democratic response in English.

The task force on poverty, said New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, is "a wonderful idea."

"In addition to Katrina exposing the weakness of our levee system, it also exposed conditions in cities across America as it relates to poverty. I think now is the right time for us to really put a strong focus on it," Nagin said.

Villaraigosa was appointed to the panel, called the Task Force on Poverty and Opportunity, by Long Beach Mayor Beverly O'Neill, president of the U.S. Conference of Mayors.

Villaraigosa said the task force will look at what works in cities and question government anti-poverty programs. He hopes the task force will have its first recommendations in six months but will remain involved in the debate for years to come.

Poverty must be made a moral issue, dealt with by the "collective will" of communities, he said. The federal government must do more, but so must the private sector, Villaraigosa said.

Ideas to be considered include using public pensions to invest in geographic areas that need help, having government provide vouchers to help working people buy houses, and expanding workers' capacity to save for housing or college, Villaraigosa said.

In addition, he said, reforming and improving schools nationwide has to be a key element of any effort.

The mayor has said he should be given more control of the schools in Los Angeles.

"We need to face the biggest question of all -- how can we rescue our failing public schools?" he told the mayors, who cheered loudly.

Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley, who encouraged Villaraigosa to head the task force, endorsed the emphasis on schools.

"Education is the most powerful weapon on the war on poverty," Daley told the mayors. "The gap between rich and poor is growing wider every year because whole segments of our society have had a second-class education and second-class opportunities."

Hours after his speech to the full conference, Villaraigosa convened the task force's first meeting, which drew about 30 mayors from cities including Trenton, N.J.; Dearborn, Mich.; San Jose; Columbus, Ohio; and Little Rock, Ark.

The group agreed to meet again in March in Los Angeles.

There was some disagreement about the best approach. One mayor, who did not identify himself when he spoke, said the problem of poverty can be largely solved by reducing the number of one-parent families.

San Jose Mayor Ron Gonzales warned that any recommendation by the task force would probably be ignored by the national media.

He recommended that the group hire media experts to tackle elements of poverty, one issue at a time.

Gonzales also told his colleagues they have to accept some responsibility for poverty, because many cities spend less in some neighborhoods than in others.

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