Pandemic in Los Angeles: Day 17

The city of Los Angeles’s strength lies, as for most cities, in its workers. Its strength lies in its creative sector. Its strength lies in its entertainment and food, and in bustling competition within each of these “sectors.” But that does not mean that these sources of strength are not in need of support or themselves. I think mostly of the workers.

One question I’ve not heard asked of mayor Garcetti or governor Newsom yet is the following: once the crisis is through, what’s the city’s–and the state’s–plan for the millions of workers currently staffing cash registers, stocking store aisles, cleaning and disposing of our garbage, and more? As in, how do Los Angeles and cities across California plan to protect these most essential workers not only at this moment, but from here on out for their critical part in supporting our communities’ daily movement?

In the mayor’s final update for this week, he noted that Trump’s $2 trillion dollar stimulus package will serve as the main engine for supporting small businesses in Los Angeles, with just one discrepancy: the money will be overwhelmingly distributed in the form of low-interest, “forgivable” loans, even though details about which businesses may qualify for “forgiveness” are unclear, and even while such loans should be zero interest; small business owners are not at fault for the health-care crisis. The U.S. government, on the other hand…but let’s not digress:

Garcetti’s address also noted that $50 million dollars are on the way from the Housing and Urban Development department for the crisis.

However, in Los Angeles, $50 million for housing is the equivalent of finding a couple of nickels under the vending machine at the laundromat; though it’s an addition to your pocket, you don’t get much added value. Just consider what Governor Newsom’s $50 million at the start of California’s shutdown was allotted to: some 1,300 travel trailers and under 1,000 leases for hotel rooms in which to place the state’s unhoused population.

There are an estimated 150,000 unhoused citizens in the state, more than 25,000 of whom lost their housing or started living in their cars during the last two years alone.

In other words, in California the state’s response to the coronavirus is increasingly highlighting a greater, far longer-term public health crisis: a lack of affordable housing for millions of the state’s workers, taxpayers, and other essential contributors. The situation remains crucial in Los Angeles.

But after COVID-19, there should be no more bus drivers in Los Angeles who can’t afford to live in L.A. County, nor anymore grocery store clerks, restaurant chain employees, sanitation workers, veterans or youth, elderly and others without options for affordable housing, adequate access to health-care, and on.

As UCLA’s professor of epidemiology and community health sciences, Kim-Farley, recently noted:

There is life after COVID-19.

I’d say the time to start discussing and planning for that life is now. In Los Angeles, we can look to the city’s past for some instruction.

J.T.

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City of Quartz: Opening Remarks [Extended]

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My brother and I might have been raised by a single mother, but we were raised to be educated, active, and resilient young men, so 
I’d never really thought of me and my family as vulnerable people. When I take a moment to think about the economics we’re steeped in today, however, I see us at a thin line between poverty and flat out financial insolvency. With Davis’s analysis in mind, that thin line is magnified. Continuing with some more of the preface from City of Quartz, another passage strikes me as being particularly relevant. Once again, in his updated preface of 2006, Davis writes:

As manufacturing employment shrinks, an already precarious low-wage workforce is further compressed into a limited spectrum of service-sector jobs in restaurants, hotels, offices, theme parks, and private homes. This service-heavy economy, based upon a myriad of poorly-capitalized small businesses, is especially vulnerable to fluctuations in economic weather…

When the financial meltdown of 2008 stormed the market, Davis’s insight proved to be prescient. Like the Titanic, the first to lose everything in the crash were the laborers at the bottom of the ship, or people like the garment workers who’d no longer have work following the crash even when they were just managing to pay their rent in the first place.

The second group of people to lose everything would be those just a level above the laborers, or people like me and my brother, as the inheritors of an economy that had no real safety net for their immigrant parents, and barely any safety net for us as their children.

For yours truly, however, in 2008 there wasn’t much of a crash for my eyes to assess. I was barely an eighteen-year old high school graduate then, and the only thing I knew is that I was going to college at the same time that the country was getting ready to claim its first Black president; I was excited about the future, and hopeful that I was a part of a new era of American culture. Plus, my mother had left the garment industry to start and run her own small business a few years prior, so I believed that my family’s destiny was always going to be a little different from those around us.

Our destiny would be different, in its own natural way, but not different enough to distinguish my mother’s struggle to pay the rent from that of our next-door neighbors who cleaned houses for a living. As Davis’s text points out, our ability to level the crash was fragile, and though my mother’s little newsstand business managed to survive the next couple of years of the sour market, a “profit” has never been more difficult for her to garner than it is today.

The truth is that business for mom is not growing, but reeling further into a story of yesterday’s memories with each passing day. In turn, seven years after Hope for an era of American Change, the only thing that’s different for me and my family is that the task now lies on my brother and I to step up and weather the storm.

I can live with this destiny, of course, as my mother managed to live with the fact that she’d have to raise two young men in Los Angeles on her own, but I know that all of us expected more from our country. Yet with the clock ticking, each minute that passes wanes my mother’s tiny bones further into exhaustion, making my post-graduate phase less about crafting my own destiny than about inhereting my mother’s. She needs major health procedures on her teeth and feet soon, and as Davis points out in his preface:

“The working poor in Los Angeles have only marginally better access to healthcare than they might possess in Mexico City or Rio de Janeiro.”

It’s true. As a recipient of Medi-Cal, like my mother before me, I know firsthand just how many benefits of the government’s health-care my family and I are actually able to access. Benefits include check-ups and diagnoses for our health needs, but the rest has to come out of pockets that are already drained.

Still, as Davis later points out in his preface, “wages in California have increased only for workers with a college degree…”

And as I think about my education throughout the last couple of years, I believe firmly in my ability to gain a greater footing for me and my family to make it through the next seven years. Unlike my blind optimism in 2008, however, I’m not holding onto any hope for a presidential bailout anytime soon. As I reflect on the market for what it’s been to me and my family throughout the last decade, I finally see that any upward mobility, like its downward counterpart, comes one step at a time.

With more soon,