Louisiana has been ranked 49th for so long — at least 10 years—that the Annie E. Casey Foundation should consider retiring the state’s child poverty jersey.
The annual KIDS COUNT report by the Baltimore-based foundation compiles government statistics from various quality-of-life indicators, such as health care, death rates, the makeup of families; then tabulates a ranking that shows how well children are faring in each state.
All the way back to 2001, coverage around the state of the report’s annual findings, regardless of the newspaper, looks remarkably similar year in and year out. Each article dutifully reports that Louisiana did marginally better in this or that category. This year it was a decrease in the percentage of children in poverty. In 2006, to pick a random example, it was a decrease in the number of high school dropouts.
Regardless of the optimism voiced each year, the overall ranking remains the same: ahead of only Mississippi.
“We haven’t addressed poverty in a consistent manner,” said Democratic State Rep. Regina Barrow, whose north Baton Rouge and Port Allen district includes some of the state’s highest poverty pockets.
Barrow ticks off various conferences she has attended over the years. She can list all manner of initiatives floated with great fanfare as the answer, only to watch them melt away, unfunded and forgotten.
“We don’t follow through, and that’s why we end up on the bottom of the list every year,” Barrow said.
She suggests a coordinated effort to improve education and health care, along with additional tax credits that would allow workers to keep more of their low income, and training on how to build and keep financial assets, like a house or savings account. The plan would require a sustained effort over a couple of generations, she said.
In recent years, legislators have rolled back income taxes for the state’s well-to-do, increased the deduction for private school tuition, and passed all manner of tax credits for the business community.
“The tools are not there, not only for the poor as defined by the federal government, but for the working people in our state. And there are a lot more of them, who are working hard every day, but are barely earning enough,” Barrow said, referring to the statistics that show half the state makes less than $50,000 a year, just one pay check away from poverty status.
Poverty is defined by the federal government as $21,756 income a year for a family of two adults and two children. That works out to roughly $419 per week or $10.50 per hour.
According to KIDS COUNT, 1.1 million Louisiana children — roughly one in every four of the state’s residents — live in a home that falls below the federal poverty line. And that’s nearly 40,000 fewer children than before Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
Teresa Falgoust, a coordinator with the Agenda for Children, an advocacy group based in New Orleans that helps connect children with government programs, says Louisiana has shown some improvement over the years.
For instance, the state Department of Health and Hospitals, DHH, has been very successful signing up children to its public health insurance programs, like Medicaid and LaChip. DHH also sponsors a program that pays for nurses to visit pregnant women at home. The children born to women in this program are healthier and better prepared for school, Falgoust said. But there’s only enough funding to provide the service for about 15 percent of the eligible women, she said.
Poverty costs taxpayers in the long run, Falgoust said.
It’s not as simple as the “tsk, tsk” rhetoric favored by many politicians, Internet bloggers and talk radio hosts.
Study after study shows that the overwhelming bulk of children who grow up in impoverished families end up with an inferior education and a low income job, Falgoust said. She pointed to shelves of studies that show Louisiana’s low-income earners pay less in taxes and require more taxpayer-funded services.
Look no further than this year’s $25 billion budget: State government sets aside about $8.1 billion for the state Department of Health and Hospitals and about $920 million for the Department of Children and Family Services, two agencies that primarily serve the poor.
Those are real numbers too.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.