The current educational model is not well-suited to the economy of tomorrow, and if it isn’t changed radically, “we could see the middle class hollowed out again,” said Jerry Nickelsburg, an economist with the Anderson Forecast at UCLA. To illustrate the income gap, economists use a scale in which zero is for a utopian society with wealth evenly distributed, and 100 is for a society in which a few mega-rich individuals hold all the dollars. In the United States, the index has slowly inched up to somewhere near 50 in the past 35 years, meaning wealth is distributed somewhat evenly between rich and poor. In L.A., however, it’s above 60 percent, meaning the wealthy control a disproportionate share of the money. According to the most recent Census Bureau data, the mean annual household income in Los Angeles stood at $66,364. On the wealthy side, nearly 60,000 households made more than $200,000. On the poor side, more than 140,000 made $10,000 or less. Things aren’t as bad as they were in the 1990s, when high- wage manufacturing jobs evaporated by the tens of thousands and the index soared well above the national average. Nickelsburg said the economy had evolved, so high- wage service jobs – paralegal, graphic design, communications and audio-visual – gave workers a better shot at working their way into the middle class. But the key difference then, he said, was that someone also could land a manufacturing job right out of high school with no special training. And if assembly-line workers got laid off at General Motors in Van Nuys, they could often take a short trip to Burbank and get hired at Lockheed with the same pay. Graphic designers, on the other hand, can’t just apply to be nurses if their firm closes. And without a more comprehensive employment-development and training strategy throughout the region, economist Jack Kyser said, the middle-class jobs of today can easily evaporate tomorrow. “When you have a two-tier economy with a rapidly shrinking middle class, you’ll have some social problems like crime and homelessness,” he said. “You need a balanced economy with a good job ladder so if people want to work hard, they can get ahead.” Jos Torres, 21, of Sylmar wants to work hard and get ahead. The first isn’t so difficult, he said, but the latter is a challenge. Torres makes $9.25 per hour, plus commissions, answering phones in customer service. He brings home around $285 per week. He rents a room from his mother, has credit card and cell phone bills and makes payments to a friend who lent him money to buy a 1991 Toyota Celica. To try to get ahead, Torres sought assistance from Communities In Schools, a North Hills agency that helped get him into vocational training. He plans to study to get into real estate and to save for a home. “It’s pretty difficult,” he said. “You need a little pile of money to get started, but it’s hard. Everything’s going up – rent, gas, everything. You’re not going to get that pile unless you starve yourself.” [email protected] (818) 713-3738160Want local news?Sign up for the Localist and stay informed Something went wrong. Please try again.subscribeCongratulations! You’re all set! “I’m really blessed,” he said. “I still don’t have a Lamborghini, though. And I need one.” As Rodriguez marveled at the sleek, red Italian sports car, Martinez washed it. For the past seven years, that’s been his living, earning minimum wage plus tips. He has an apartment on Victory Boulevard in Valley Glen with his wife and two children. He makes $300 to $400 per week. “It’s hard,” Martinez said. “I don’t have a lot of money but, compared to Mexico, it’s good. There, $5 is a day’s work.” Rodriguez considers himself well-off; Martinez considers himself poor. And according to a report released today by the UCLA Anderson Forecast, Los Angeles has a growing number of people just like both of them – and not so many in the middle. While the local economy has adapted in recent years to accommodate more middle- class jobs, the report, titled “Richer and Poorer: Income Inequality in Los Angeles,” warns that the next generation of workers could find itself ill-prepared to labor its way from poor to rich. On one hand, Francisco Martinez and Paige Rodriguez aren’t so different. They both live in the San Fernando Valley. They’re both around 30. They both work with cars. But the similarity ends there. Rodriguez customizes high-end automobiles and sells them to celebrities. Last year, his 101 Automotive Group grossed $2.5 million. The Toluca Lake man drives a tricked- out Mercedes-Benz S550 he estimates is worth $150,000.
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