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Manuel Pastor raises awareness of local poverty levels

Sociology professor outlines the economic drawbacks of the county’s racial disparities

by Lizzie Hedrick
Manuel Pastor and Tavis Smiley at poverty panel
Manuel Pastor, left, with Tavis Smiley, Maria Brenes, executive director of Inner City Struggle, and Jonathan Fielding, director of the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health (Photo/Zon D'Amour)

Sharing bleak statistics during a recent kickoff for Tavis Smiley Foundation’s Ending Poverty initiative, Professor Manuel Pastor pointed to the need to raise the public’s awareness about the high poverty levels in Los Angeles County.

While poverty is a problem for the population as a whole, Pastor noted the sharp racial differential in the poverty experience: 11 percent of white children in Los Angeles live below the poverty line, but about a third of African-American and another one-third of Latino children live in poverty.

Unless we deal with the disparities now, we’re generating a challenge moving forward.

Manuel Pastor

Pastor, professor of sociology, and American studies and ethnicity at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, participated in a panel discussion at The California Endowment in Los Angeles on June 26.

“Those are significant racial disparities,” said Pastor, director of the USC Program for Environmental and Regional Equity and the USC Center for the Study of Immigrant Integration. “And given the fact that most of our future population will be African-American, Latino or Asian, unless we deal with the disparities now, we’re generating a challenge moving forward.”

Engaging the media and the public

The Tavis Smiley Foundation is a youth-empowerment organization. The goal of the talk show host’s four-year Ending Poverty: America’s Silent Spaces tour is to spark a public dialogue about poverty by engaging the media and 1 million people to participate through donations, volunteering, job creation, improved health conditions and academic achievement.

Aside from emphasizing the racial differences, Pastor emphasized three major issues in his presentation and comments:

  • Racial inequalities among people living below the poverty line pose a formidable and imminent challenge.
  • Poverty is not an individual circumstance; poor people live in poor neighborhoods. For example, Pastor said that in Los Angeles County, 62 percent of people living below the poverty line live in poor neighborhoods, where more than 20 percent of residents are also poor. “In these neighborhoods, all the problems of poverty are compounded by difficult environmental conditions, high rates of crime, schools that aren’t functioning, transit systems that don’t get people where they need to go, so we have a problem of concentrated poverty,” he said.
  • Many people who live below the poverty line are classified as “working poor” — about half of adult Latinos who live below the poverty line work more than 30 hours per week and 40 weeks per year. “That tells us that something is wrong with the labor market, especially for immigrants,” Pastor said.

Pastor’s overarching message during the town hall meeting emphasized that while some policies do work to combat poverty, raising public awareness and concern has been difficult.

“What we need to do is point out that this high level of poverty is damaging for the Los Angeles economy as a whole — and unless we address it, we are not going to get our economy to hum in the future,” he said.

Pastor devotes his own research to making real-world changes.

“Some see a difference between traditional rigorous research and applied work. In fact, in the work I do that’s applied, I’m even more rigorous because when you’re dealing with ideas to change the world, I’m always worried about deleterious impacts if I don’t recommend the right thing based on solid social science research,” he said.

“Being concerned about how to apply your analysis to improve the world is in fact a mandate for bringing to bear the best possible work.”

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