New Orleans wants what every other American city wants: an ample supply of good jobs; a skilled workforce to fill those jobs; strong, stable neighborhoods; good schools; quality housing; and an exciting environment in which to live, work, play and raise a family.
The subject of social and economic inequality is often topic of conversation in New Orleans. Many are aware of the issues which are too many to address in this piece. However, let’s look at a few factors as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau that shed some light on the issue.
In 2013, the median income in New Orleans was $36,631. This is compared to $45,981 for the region and $52,250 for the nation.
The poverty rate of 27 percent is up from 21 percent in 2004 and is compared to a metro rate at 19 percent and the nation at 16 percent.
The current median rent of $925 is up from $698 in 2004 with 37 percent of all renters experiencing severe cost burden, which is up from 24 percent in 2004.
These figures may not surprise many. What may not be apparent are the consequences of inequality for a community trying to regenerate itself.
Why should we care about inequality in New Orleans? We should care because extreme inequality can stunt the social and civic infrastructure needed to sustain a vibrant community. Whether we accept it or not, New Orleans cannot comprehensively regenerate itself with the weight of extreme inequality on its back.
While some can debate the impact the post-Katrina regeneration is having on New Orleans, its engagement is resulting in a rejuvenated medical sector, an active real estate market, increased private investment, repositioning of public housing, an emerging charter school movement, an increased spirt of entrepreneurship and a rise in population due in part to newcomers moving to the city. By all accounts, New Orleans has progressed from being on life support in critical condition to being upgraded to stable and improving but under close observation.
Close observation is required due to two issues. First, the systemic social and economic ills plaguing New Orleans and how they will be treated and second, unintended consequences that may emerge that were not prevalent before the rebuilding efforts began and to what extent they are helping or adding additional problems in the city. Getting a read on the convergence of these issues and how the community responds will provide insight into whether the city is headed toward comprehensive regeneration or a fragmented effort which does little to mitigate long-term structural social and economic issues.
Eric Anthony Johnson
urban development strategist