MTA workers are seen during a trial run of the Gold Line extension in 2009. (Los Angeles Times )
Government officials in L.A. have a long and mostly unsuccessful history of using public resources to try to engineer positive social outcomes — forcing contractors to pay a living wage, say, or seeking to improve living standards for port truckers under a regulatory program aimed at cleaning the air. We try to look at such efforts skeptically, because in benefiting some taxpayers they sometimes harm others, or give rise to unintended consequences. And yet we can't find much to object to in Los Angeles County's latest groundbreaking anti-poverty scheme: a deal to put residents of low-income neighborhoods to work on transit projects, to be voted on Thursday by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board.
The board is being asked to approved a targeted labor agreement on the projects to be funded under Measure R, the 2008 ballot initiative that raised the county sales tax to fund more than $30 billion in transportation improvements. Under the deal, 40% of those hired must come from low-income neighborhoods, and 10% must be "disadvantaged" — meaning they fit at least two of nine criteria, including homelessness, chronic unemployment, single parenthood and veteran status.
Such poverty-fighting hiring targets on big infrastructure projects aren't unusual at the local level, but this is believed to be the first time a transit agency has imposed such a target on projects that receive federal funding. Ordinarily, hiring targets don't pass federal muster because they discriminate in favor of local workers, but under this agreement, anybody from any low-income neighborhood in the nation could qualify for a job building a light-rail line or subway.
In a competitive, free-market environment, restricting the hiring pool could be expected to have at least two negative consequences: costs would rise because contractors would have to screen workers by ZIP Code, and the labor pool would be less skilled (leading to a higher risk of errors) because people would be hired based on where they live rather than on their qualifications. But big public-sector construction is already divorced from the free market.
MTA officials say existing targeted labor agreements haven't raised taxpayer costs because the added administrative expenses are minor and usually absorbed by contractors. Meanwhile, they don't seem to affect worker skill sets because contractors don't get to pick their own workers for a given job anyway — they're supplied instead by union halls, which follow their own priorities in picking laborers. There are believed to be ample skilled workers in low-income neighborhoods to meet the hiring targets without settling for unqualified ones.
The benefit of the MTA's proposed agreement is that it would provide opportunities to people who can't otherwise get a break — convicted felons, union apprentices who don't have enough hours to qualify as journeymen, former foster children and so on. Exactly the people who might require taxpayer-funded assistance that conservatives don't want to pay for and that even the most liberal lawmakers concede California currently can't afford.
Even more important, the MTA labor deal forbids strikes or work stoppages, providing an important level of certainty that could ultimately save taxpayer money and reduce delays. We're still a bit wary of the social-engineering aspect, especially because basing hiring decisions on an applicant's neighborhood doesn't seem entirely fair; a wealthy person from a poor neighborhood might benefit, while a poor person from a wealthy neighborhood would be excluded. But there isn't much doubt that disadvantaged people are clustered in low-income neighborhoods. The deal might help alleviate chronic joblessness, and it probably won't cause any harm. Go for it.