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L.A. Mayor Seeks Answers on Poverty

MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

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

MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

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: 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: 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: 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. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.