L.A. Mayor Seeks Answers on Poverty

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa is leading a task force on poverty for the U.S. Conference of Mayors. He tells Michele Norris about his plan to fight poverty, homelessness and other issues facing his city and others around the nation.

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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

And I'm Michele Norris. As the man who heads the nation's second largest city, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa faces a steep set of challenges. They range from failing schools to horrendous traffic to an ever-widening income gap. Villaraigosa told U.S. mayors in Washington yesterday that the terms of the debate over poverty in America must change.

The mayor stopped by our studios earlier today. He explained why policy discussions about poverty should focus not just on the poor but also on those who are perilously close to falling into poverty. People he describes as dancing on the razor's edge of subsistence.

ANTONIO VILLARAIGOSA: The face of poverty has changed in America today. People on welfare are poor, but there are many people who are working every day. Some of them are working two jobs; don't have health care, and living, as I said, on the razor's edge of subsistence.

NORRIS: But so many cities, L.A. included, have a hard time meeting the needs of those who are already considered to be poor. If you expand the definition without also expanding services and opportunities, aren't you just exacerbating the problem?

VILLARAIGOSA: No, that's precisely it. We're expanding the definition for the purpose of saying and making the case to the federal government and to the States that we have to do something to provide more opportunity for people, to protect the safety net, to get people the tools that they need to be successful, to move to the middle class, to be able to not just subsist but thrive.

NORRIS: Now you talk about making the case to the States and the Federal Government, but if you're expanding this definition what specifically will the city do to help those people who are living from paycheck to paycheck?

VILLARAIGOSA: We've got to focus in a number of areas. We've got to do something about the homeless; we need to look at workforce development and what we can do to give them the job training skills that they need to work in the new economy. We've got to focus on education.

In our cities today, some 50 percent of the kids dropping out in Los Angeles, 57 percent of African-American kids are dropping out, 60 percent of Latinos. We've got to do a much better job to address race and class and the chasm between race and class that we saw in New Orleans and in cities throughout the nation.

NORRIS: Mayor, recently you called your city the nation's capital of homelessness. But it's been reported that your budget recommendations call for elimination 200 shelter beds on Skid Row, closing a Hollywood shelter and scrapping plans to build a new shelter in San Fernando Valley and when you look at that it seems like your pronouncements are out of step with your policy.

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, first of all, I had to just clarify that. The person who wrote that didn't do his homework. I haven't presented a budget. My budget will be presented in two months. All I did was, I did what the federal government did. The federal government cut CDBG Grants, Community Development Block Grants, by eight percent. They did it across the board. I cut all of the programs from the federal government.

So this was the Bush Administration that cut our CDBG Grants by eight percent; I cut them across the board too. If I hadn't, if I had said well we won't cut the homeless programs but cut programs for after school care, or whatever it is, I would have been criticized by that group of stakeholders.

What wasn't mentioned was, I also fully funded the housing trust fund to the tune of $100,000,000. $50,000,000 was for permanent support of housing for the homeless. We just got an 8% increase, specifically for homeless programs from the federal government so they cut the CDBG Grants, some of which go to the homeless. They also picked us up in another area to the tune of eight percent. So, there is going to be more money for most of these programs than there has been in the past. And finally, what I've said is, with respect to the homeless programs that were cut, I'm going to go to the private sector and raise some money for some of those programs. I think it's important for us to do that.

NORRIS: Before I let you go, I have to ask you this one. When Hurricane Rita bore down on the Gulf Coast, and you remember the pictures of the long lines of people trying to get out of Houston and the evacuation plans and everything that sort of went wrong with that, when I looked at those pictures, I immediately thought of Los Angeles.

Because Los Angeles looks like that on a normal day with back-to-back gridlock and I'm just wondering about whether you also looked at those pictures and were concerned with the cities evacuation plan, the city that has such intense traffic problems.

VILLARAIGOSA: Well, I think every Mayor across the nation saw those images. No city can evacuate that number of people easily. It's not possible. You can't evacuate two million people or four million people quickly. It's just not possible.

NORRIS: But that's exactly what you're charged to do is to come up with a plan to do just that in the event of a catastrophic --

VILLARAIGOSA: There is no city, only a demagogue would tell you that you can evacuate two million people. Mostly we've had earthquake and fires. We are prepared to address that. When you have a 150-year destroy like you had in New Orleans, you're going to have many challenges. Obviously we can all learn from these instances and we want to learn and we're putting together a group of experts that are going to help us evaluate some of that. But, we've also got to understand that there are limits to what any city can do.

NORRIS: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, thanks so much for coming in to talk to us.

VILLARAIGOSA: Thank you.

NORRIS: Antonio Villaraigosa is the mayor of Los Angeles.

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