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Nation's biggest pocket of working poor is in SoCal

A  large group of janitors, security officers, airport workers and other contracted service workers, march and rally in front of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), to protest against, what they say are “low wages and benefits” in Los Angeles, California on June 15, 2011.
A group of janitors, security officers, airport workers and other contracted service workers marched in 2011 to protest against low wages and benefits in Los Angeles.

The Congressional district with the highest concentration of low-wage workers in the country is right here in Southern California, straddling the Long Beach Freeway.

A new study of the working poor by Oxfam America finds that 81,000 workers, nearly one-in-three in the 40th Congressional District of Lucille Roybal-Allard, would benefit from a boost in the minimum wage. More than half the district's households live 200% below the national poverty line.  For a family of two, that means the couple makes less than $32,000 a year.

The district straddles the 710 Freeway and includes the cities of Huntington Park, Bell, and Commerce, and unincorporated East Los Angeles. 

The nearby 34th Congressional District of Xavier Becerra has the nation's 4th largest concentration of working poor. It runs east and west of the Pasadena Freeway and includes Westlake, Chinatown, Elysian Park and Montecito Heights. Oxfam estimates 29% of those in the district would benefit from a higher minimum wage. Half the households in Becerra’s district are living below 200% of the poverty line. Yet, the percentage of households receiving food stamps in the district is just below the nation as a whole.

Oxfam claims its study is the first to draw on census information to determine how many people in each congressional district and state are among the ranks of the working poor, how many draw on federal benefits, and how many would benefit from an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 per hour.

Currently, the federal minimum wage is $7.25. California's is $8 per hour. The state's minimum will rise to $9 on July 1 and to $10 on Jan. 1, 2016. The State Senate last month passed a bill to gradually raise the minimum wage to $13 by 2017. The bill is now before the Assembly.

In January, the minimum wage in San Jose rose to $10.15 per hour. A San Francisco measure on the November ballot would nearly double the federal minimum wage in that city to $15 per hour.

The City of Los Angeles passed a living wage ordinance in 2011 for all contractors. Congresswoman Janice Hahn was on the City Council at the time. She says when the city implemented the $11.03 minimum, "the sky didn’t fall. Businesses didn’t go under and workers’ lives improved." Hahn's South L.A. and Wilmington district ranks 12th in the nation in the number of low wage workers. Last week, a Los Angeles City Council committee supported a proposal that would boost the wages of non-unionized hotel workers in L.A to $15 an hour. 

California's Central Valley also has sizable pockets of working poor, as do Arkansas and South Texas. The Oxfam study indicates that, nationwide, about one-in-five workers would benefit from a higher minimum wage in districts held by both Republicans and Democrats.  Raymond C. Offenheiser, president of Oxfam America, says the additional income would "lift more than five million Americans out of poverty — and it will go right back into and strengthen local economies.”

In his State of the Union address earlier this year, President Obama called on Congress to boost the minimum wage and signed an Executive Order raising it to $10.10 for employees of federal contractors. Democrats picked up the ball on Capitol Hill, hoping to make it an election issue.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce says raising the minimum wage will make both economic recovery and unemployment rates worse. In a blog post by the Chamber's J.D. Foster, he says a raise would "force businesses to bear the burden of national socio-economic policies."

California is also home to the district with the nation's second lowest percentage of working poor: Mike Honda's 17th Congressional District in Silicon Valley. Fewer than one-in-ten workers is making minimum wage. (The place with the smallest number of working poor is on the Upper East Side of New York City.) In Southern California, the lowest percentage of working poor live in the 33rd Congressional District, currently represented by a retiring Henry Waxman. Just 11% of residents there are low wage workers.

Here's a link to an interactive map of Congressional Districts.