The Real Reasons New Orleans is so Poor

A year ago Total Community Action, an anti-poverty activist group in New Orleans, issued a devastating whitepaper that warned that poverty in the city had reached epidemic proportions. This was not another anti-establishment grouse by a fringe group of activists. The figures on the city's poverty were appalling. The poverty rate was nearly triple that of the national average. More than 40 percent of public school kids were illiterate, and half would drop out before graduation. Many of them would wind up in Angola state prison, an antique facility that in a throwback to an Old South plantation forced inmates to do manual farm labor at peon wages.

The abominable scenes of poor blacks mobbing the New Orleans Superdome to escape the ravages of Katrina, and the relentless TV shots of looting and mayhem, firmly embedded the image of New Orleans in the world's eyes as a poor, destitute, and mostly black city. Racism and Bush's tax and war policies were fingered as the major reasons for the squalor. They are, but they're not the only reasons.

The oil and shipping industry bust in New Orleans in the mid-1980s raised the first alarm that the city's economy was headed toward crisis. City and state officials ignored that alarm. A report on job growth in New Orleans in the 1990s ranked the city at near rock bottom in comparison to other big cities in attracting industries that paid higher wages and provided benefits. Even if city and state officials had managed to bag auto plants and manufacturing firms to plug the hole left by the flight of the oil and shipping companies, there were too few skilled, trained and educated workers to fill the jobs. More than three-fourths of city residents did not have a college degree. The city banked that sprucing up the traditional tourist havens, Bourbon Street and the French Quarter, and building casinos would boost tourism, and provide thousands of new jobs.

But the jobs were mostly low-pay service and retail jobs. The increase in low-end jobs fed the illusion that New Orleans was a bustling, prospering city that had virtually eliminated poverty. The relentless tout of Bourbon Street tourism reinforced New Orleans reputation as a happy-go-lucky party and fun city. New Orleans was a good place to plop a new casino or strip club, but not an auto, petrochemical or steel manufacturing plant.

While city officials bet their economic cards on the tenuous tourism industry to lift the city's poor, it was rocked by school board and police scandals. For decades, endemic corruption in the police department tagged New Orleans police as a poster agency for police malfeasance. This time, however, cops weren't accused of taking bribes and shakedowns, but of engaging in a murder-for-hire scheme. Meanwhile, federal auditors found that $70 million of the school budget couldn't be accounted for. The budget shortfall, graft and mismanagement resulted in the elimination of nearly 1,000 school jobs and the forced closing of five schools.

The scandals further added to the public perception that New Orleans was a lawless city run by clueless officials. While two-term mayor Marc Morial got high marks for cracking down on police corruption and for burnishing the tourist business, he was also slammed with charges that he feathered the nest of his cronies at City Hall.

His successor, Ray Nagin, ran into similar roadblocks. A political novice, bankrolled by corporate interests, Nagin won election with less than a majority of the black vote. This stirred black suspicions that his administration would tilt heavily toward business interests and ignore the city's escalating numbers of poor. Even if Nagin proved a champion of the poor, he could not reverse the set in stone reliance of city officials and business leaders on tourism, and gambling as the city's economic balm.

Total Community Action screamed loudly that the city's blind pursuit of tourism and casino dollars to keep the city afloat was a prescription for economic disaster, and that these industries could not alleviate city's grinding poverty. The group demanded that city and state officials draw up a comprehensive program to improve education and job training programs.

Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, stirred by the city and the state's out-of-control poverty, urged anti-poverty activists to come up with a plan for poverty reduction. The plan was piecemeal and sketchy, and did not spell out what or how the state would pay for a program to reduce poverty. It was yet another paper promise by officials to do something about poverty that was not kept.

Katrina was their jarring wake up call, as well as our own. The sight of thousands of poor blacks making a mad dash for their lives blew to bits the delusion that New Orleans had improved things for the poor. And there are more than enough culprits to blame for that failure.

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