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Michael Bernick
Adjunct Fellow; Counsel to Duane Morris LLP; former Director, California Employment Development Department California, Human Capital, Labor
California and Human Capital and Labor
Michael Bernick, the former director of the California labor department, the Employment Development Department (EDD), joined the Milken Institute in February 2004, as a research fellow, focusing on job creation and workforce development projects.
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The road from Watts, August 1965
By: Michael Bernick
August 13, 2012
   
   
A colleague and I were talking recently about the Watts riots, the five days of rioting in 1965 when, after decades of neglect and poverty, this neighborhood in Los Angeles erupted in violence that led to 34 deaths, nearly 3500 arrests, and the burning of hundreds of area storefronts and commercial buildings, causing more than $40 million in property damage.

We should not let this event fade from memory. We can learn particularly from the actions of state and local government officials after the riots, and the ideology behind their choices. Technology allows us to travel back 47 years and relive some of the news reports of the rioting.

Initially, the state government appointed a commission headed by John McCone, the former head of the CIA. The McCone Commission delivered its report in December 1965, Violence in the City-and End or a Beginning? The report attributed the riots to social factors of inferior schools, high unemployment, poor health care, and inadequate public infrastructure. It called for a strategy of new government programs to address these issues.

Even before the Commission report, the state and local government had sprung into action, with a similar government program orientation. Within a short time after the riots, government leaders established the South Central Los Angeles Service Center at 103rd Street near Compton. The Center brought together an array of government programs in a single neighborhood location: job counselors, social workers for welfare recipients, legal services, and counselors specializing in youth , health care counselors, and business development.

Michael Dolphin is the regional manager of the Employment Development Department (EDD) job service division in Los Angeles. In 1967, he was a junior college student and visited the Service Center seeking employment. What stood out were services available to residents with arrest warrants or legal problems, health care and employment. Dolphin worked in a job training program for craft workers in the entertainment industry. Then he joined the Army in 1968, eventually received his college degree, was hired by EDD in 1971, and eventually became the regional manager.

By 1968, the South Central Los Angeles Service Center had grown with the expansion of government anti-poverty programs, each with its own anti-poverty spin. The employment programs included:

• Job Corps, a residential program aimed at taking low income youth out of their neighborhoods
• Neighborhood Youth Corps aimed at keeping youth in their neighborhoods and providing part-time and summer jobs
• Concentrated Employment Program, an early aEURoeholisticaEUR? approach that emphasized a variety of services to the job seeker

By the early 1970aEUR(TM)s many of these programs were no longer sustainable. The impact of Vietnam War spending finally caught up with domestic programs. The federal government, the main funder of these programs, cut back domestic spending.

There was also a growing debate challenging government programs as an effective anti-poverty strategy. Were low income individuals and communities really in need of the counseling of social welfare professionals? Did these individuals and communities not possess important strengths and skills? Could these strengths and skills be better utilized with different incentives and structures for ownership in the market system? It is a debate that continues today in California.

The unemployment rate in Watts and South Central Los Angeles declined in the late 1960s. But this decrease tracked mainly the decrease in unemployment in California overall, not spending on government programs. In July 1965, the unemployment rate in California stood at 6 percent. By the end of 1965, it had declined to 5.5 percent. It stayed at that level or lower for more than four years, when it begin rising in the first years of the 1970s. The rise and fall of the unemployment rates in Watts and other low income areas of California followed the rises and falls in overall job creation in California, not program spending.

When the Los Angeles Times reported on the neighborhood in 1990, the results were surface-deep. Many residents complained that nothing had changed, that they had been abandoned. The McCone Commission staff acknowledged that government had not done enough. The Times reporters pointed to problems at Drew Medical Center (then under investigation), an unfinished multifamily housing complex, and the closed Lockheed aerospace plant near Watts-Willowbrook.

In fact, none of these examples shows abandonment. The Drew Medical Center, built after the riots, has achieved more steady footing, and the Lockheed plant was only one of many manufacturing facilities that have been closed in California in the past 30 years. Any serious analysis of Watts would recognize the diverse positive changes in infrastructure, job training, housing and business ownership since the riots. Each was the result of individual and collective efforts.

The riots in Watts show us that thereaEUR(TM)s much to learn about government intervention in a neighborhood. It requires looking at the issues with an open mind and considering the true effectiveness of government and social welfare programs. As we move forward, low income communities, such as Watts, might best be seen not as communities of sickness or need, but as communities that can build (and own) housing, businesses and other assets if provided different incentive structures.