The Consumer and the Commuter
The Disadvantaged Consumer
The Commission heard recurrent testimony of alleged consumer exploitation in south central Los Angeles: of higher prices being charged for food there than in other parts of town, of spoiled meat or produce or old bread being sold at the same price as fresh, of high interest rates on furniture and clothing purchases, of shoddy materials at high prices. Complaints were also registered to the effect that there is a bias against the curfew area in the practices of insurance companies and institutional lenders. In a related vein, a number of witnesses advanced the view that there was a vengeance pattern to the destruction of stores in the curfew area, that it was a retribution on merchants who were guilty of consumer exploitation, and particularly on Caucasians who were said to "take from the area but put nothing back into it."
Our study of the patterns of burning and looting does not indicate any significant correlation between alleged consumer exploitation and the destruction. On the contrary, a number of stores with a reputation for ethical practices and efficient and low-priced operation suffered major damage (" . . . the beautiful blocklong market . . . which was 99% Negro staffed, was the second to burn . . ." said one witness), while businesses which were widely unpopular came through the riot unmarked. (Another witness stated, "I hate to say this, but ... the one they didn't burn - I don't know why they didn't burn that if they were going to burn something - we don't buy anything out of there.") There was some evidence that businesses which were apparently Negro-owned were spared - many by hastily-posted signs such as "Negro-owned", and "Blood brother" - but there is also evidence of the destruction of some Negro-owned businesses.
The consumer problem for many curfew area residents has the double bite of poverty and race. The practices that such residents criticize are a classic pattern in impoverished communities. But the factor of race - the merchants are for the most part white - sometimes leads the curfew area resident to conclude that oppressive or seemingly oppressive practices are directed against him to keep him in his place. Thus, regardless of actual exploitation, the area resident may believe he is exploited. However, our conclusion, based upon an analysis of the testimony before us and on the reports of our consultants, is that the consumer problems in the curfew area are not due to systematic racial discrimination but rather result from the traditional interplay of economic forces in the market place, aggravated by poverty conditions.
We have no doubt, however, that there are serious problems for the consumer in this disadvantaged area, just as there are wherever there is poverty. One is the costly and inadequate transportation from within the south central area to other parts of Los Angeles which tends to restrict residents of that area to the nearby stores, and which we discuss in more detail later in this section. Another problem is "easy credit" which can become harsh indeed if the disadvantaged person defaults on his installment obligations. The debtor may experience the loss of his property through repossession, or the loss of his job through repeated garnishments of his wages. While it is easy to say that the improvident debtor brought this state upon himself, we deplore the tactics of some merchants and lenders who help induce low-income persons to become heavily debt-burdened. Still another problem for the Negro consumer is the lack of an adequate remedy when he feels he has been unfairly treated. Public and private agencies exist to help the consumer in such a situation, but while manned by able and conscientious professionals, these agencies are generally understaffed, underfinanced, and overburdened. Often the consumer does not even know of the agency's existence.
Having considered the consumer problem, we suggest that useful steps might be taken in the following areas:
1. The Civil Division of the Public Defender's office might consider expanding its services in the curfew area by opening branch offices and publicizing their availability. The Neighborhood Legal Services Offices, soon to be opened under the anti-poverty program, will provide an additional needed resource. These agencies should consider instituting preventive legal programs to inform the consumer concerning his legal rights.
2. The Better Business Bureau, a private agency which receives complaints regarding consumer practices and is active in consumer education, should open a branch office in south central Los Angeles and equip it with a competent staff. More immediately, courses in consumer education should be expanded in the adult education schools of the Los Angeles City School System and by the many volunteer and private groups working in the curfew area. Further, we encourage law enforcement departments, such as the Consumer Fraud Division of the Attorney General's Office, to investigate vigorously, and prosecutors to prosecute firmly, those who criminally victimize citizens in this area.
3. Based upon our informal survey of conditions of sanitation in food markets in the curfew area, we recommend that the County Health Department increase and improve its inspection program for the markets in all disadvantaged areas of the city.
4. We are persuaded that the businessmen in the curfew area should show a greater interest in the community where they work, or, if already taking an interest, should make more energetic efforts to acquaint the community with what they are doing. We feel it is imperative that positive initiatives be taken immediately by the entire business community. In particular, we believe that lending institutions treat Negro borrowers and Negro clients on the basis of each individual's responsibility rather than establish policies for all members of a race or geographical area irrespective of individual differences.
Our investigation has brought into clear focus the fact that the inadequate and costly public transportation currently existing throughout the Los Angeles area seriously restricts the residents of the disadvantaged areas such as south central Los Angeles. This lack of adequate transportation handicaps them in seeking and holding jobs, attending schools, shopping, and in fulfilling other needs. It has had a major influence in creating a sense of isolation, with its resultant frustrations, among the residents of south central Los Angeles, particularly the Watts area. Moreover, the lack of adequate east-west or north-south service through Los Angeles hampers not only the residents of the area under consideration here but also of all the city.
Historically, the Los Angeles area was served by private transportation systems, many of which were sold to the Metropolitan Transit Authority, a public entity,' in 1958. The Southern California Rapid Transit District (SCRTD), which was created by the legislature, succeeded the Metropolitan Transit Authority in November 1964. The SCRTD, although a public agency, is neither tax supported nor subsidized. It operates 1500 buses in a four county area and depends for revenue solely upon the fare box. Revenue and expense projections indicate the SCRTD will break even or possibly suffer a loss this year and a loss is forecast in future years. Traditionally, bus systems in the Los Angeles area have met increasing costs in operations by increasing fares and cutting back service. The consequence of these actions has been a transportation system which is prohibitively expensive and inadequate in service.
In general, the coverage and frequency of bus service in the Watts area is comparable to service throughout the Los Angeles area. In the judgment of the Commission, however, it is both inadequate and too costly. As related to the Watts area, the problem stems from the following facts:
(1) Four separate bus entities and one subsidiary operate within the Watts area (Southern California Rapid Transit District, Atkinson Transportation Company and its associated company, South Los Angeles Transportation Company, Torrance Municipal, and Gardena Municipal). These three public entities and one private entity with its subsidiary are by law given exclusive rights to serve within their respective franchised area. A resident of Watts may have to ride on several separate bus systems to reach certain destinations in the immediate area. These transportation systems are uncoordinated, do not provide for free transfers between systems (except in the instance of parent and subsidiary), and have been forced to cut back service and increase fares over the years because of increased capital and operating expenses.
We believe that adequate and economical public bus transportation is essential to our community and that it should not be ignored because of the debate over mass rapid transit. Indeed, we make a sharp distinction between mass rapid transit, which is an important issue facing the people of Los Angeles, and public bus transportation, which is essential without regard to what decision is reached on mass rapid transit. Public transportation is particularly essential to the poor and disadvantaged who are unable to own and operate private automobiles. (Only 14% of the families in Watts are car owners as against at least 50% elsewhere within the Los Angeles County.)
Los Angeles is the only major metropolitan area in the United States that does not subsidize the operating losses of its public transportation in one way or another. By comparison, San Francisco supports public transportation within its city limit by public subsidy which we are told amounts to about $10,000,000 per year. If the Los Angeles area as a whole and the Watts area in particular are to have better bus transportation service, it can only be provided through a public subsidy to accomplish three purposes: reduce fares, purchase or condemn the multiple uncoordinated bus system, and provide system-wide transfers. We believe that such a subsidy is justified because of public necessity and convenience, and therefore we have no hesitation in recommending it.
Therefore, recognizing that transportation improvement for the Watts area cannot be achieved without similar transportation improvement for the Los Angeles metropolitan area, the Commission recommends:
(1) A Public subsidy in one form or another to give SCRTD financial ability to provide an adequate and reasonable bus transportation system throughout the metropolitan area.
(2) The acquisition by SCRTD of the existing small transportation companies which now complicate and increase the cost of transportation in the Los Angeles area.
(3) The establishment of transfer privileges in order to minimize transportation costs.
(4) With respect to the Watts area in particular, immediate establishment of an adequate east-west cross town service as well as increasing the north-south service to permit efficient transportation to and from the area.
Continue to Welfare and Health
Return to the Table of Contents
Violence in the City: An End or a Beginning?
Continue to Welfare and Health
Return to the Table of Contents