People love those reality shows in which some expert enters a restaurant, tells the owner to “do it my way” and revitalizes the business.
Me? I like Canadian satirist Nathan Fielder, who on his Comedy Central show pushes off-the-wall solutions that don’t really address the real problems of real businesses, such as offering a “poo” flavored frozen yogurt to attract more curious customers.
In a pinch, when Fielder’s show is not on, catch the Louisiana gubernatorial forums.
In this series, contestants for Louisiana chief executive float all sorts of ideas to real problems. But only once have they talked about poverty — the issue underlying all the state’s fiscal problems.
One of every five people in Louisiana is living without enough money to provide for food and other basic needs, according to the federal government. About half the state’s households earn just enough to stay out of the poverty category, but not so much that they can survive the expense of a broken arm or major car repairs.
This isn’t new. Louisiana has been near the top since 1959 when the poverty ratings were created. Poverty correlates with high crime, poor health, low wages and bad test scores in the public schools — all expenses carried by the rest of the state’s taxpayers.
“A lot of the lists where we’re at the bottom come back to our endemic poverty,” said Jan Moller, director of the Louisiana Budget Project, a Baton Rouge-based group once dismissed by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s press secretary as a bunch of liberals.
Jindal, however, agreed with Moller’s basic take on the issue after being elected, but before taking the oath.
Jindal pointed out in a December 2007 interview that eradicating poverty would decrease “spending across the board in a variety of social programs. It decreases crime rates and it allows our economy to grow.”
The costs of poverty include about $7 billion to health care programs and another $1 billion or so for social services. It’s money that could be spent on, say, improving roads.
Jindal pursued a “rising tide lifts all boats” strategy that focused on trying to improve schools and attract businesses. But Louisiana’s poverty rate grew, slightly, on his watch.
Now at 19.8 percent, Louisiana ranks third in the nation. But this state’s poverty rolls are growing, while the rates of the top two, Mississippi and New Mexico, are falling.
The four major candidates for governor agree that better education is the answer to poverty. But that task requires the state’s leaders rowing in the same direction for a generation, a long-term discipline that Louisiana has never shown, with the possible exception of building LSU football.
In the meantime, what happens to the single working mother without a high school diploma trying to provide for her children? That’s the picture of about half of Louisiana’s poverty class. Families headed by married couples, by comparison, are at 8.5 percent.
“Statistically speaking it’s ‘family,’?” the Rev. Gene Mills, president of Louisiana Family Forum, said. Family creates a sense of belonging, responsibility, accountability and shared commitment that is fundamental to success even in the impoverished neighborhoods where one of every four Louisiana children grows up.
U.S. Sen. David Vitter at Thursday’s debate embraced Mills’ ideas, saying that government needs to protect “pillars of faith, family, education and hard work” as a way to combat poverty.
The Democratic candidate, state Rep. John Bel Edwards, is focused on the more immediate. He would double the break that allows low-income workers to claim about 3.5 percent of their federal Earned Income Tax Credit on state income tax returns. He, alone among the major gubernatorial candidates, backs raising the $7.25 per hour minimum wage.
Even full-time workers being paid $10.10 per hour, the amount being touted in Congress, make about $21,008 a year. That would be officially considered “poverty stricken”, if they have four people in the family — the poverty line is at $24,250 per year for four. The median family income in Louisiana is about $47,650, considerably less than the $64,720 national median.
Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne, like the other GOP candidates, opposes Edwards’ idea, saying higher minimum wages are “counter-productive, particularly resulting in less jobs, less opportunities for young people.”
And Public Service Commissioner Scott Angelle trotted out his line about too many people in the wagon and not enough people pulling it. His message resonates with a fair number of Louisiana voters who seem to believe the poor just wait around for government handouts.
The reality is most of the state’s poverty-stricken are working. They’re just not getting paid much.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is email@example.com and is on Twitter, @MarkBallardCNB. For more coverage of government and politics, follow our Politics Blog at http://blogs.theadvocate.com/politicsblog/.