The rate of childhood poverty, which took a dip in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, is back close to the pre-storm level, according to a new report from a local group called The Data Center. The authors say the trend has worrying implications for the mental health of the city’s youth.
There are about 78,000 people younger than 18 in Orleans Parish, and about 39 percent were living in poverty as of 2013, census data analyzed by the group show. That’s up from 32 percent in 2007 and approaching the 41 percent seen in 1999.
Not only does that figure exceed the national poverty rate among children of 22 percent, but it ranks ninth among 39 cities of comparable size.
“This is particularly concerning,” the report says, “given that many of the cities with higher child poverty rates, such as Cleveland, are not experiencing an economic renaissance as in New Orleans.”
The Data Center, which recently shortened its name from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, suggests the prevalence of low-wage jobs, rather than outright unemployment, is the likeliest culprit.
The report notes that 82 percent of families with children in New Orleans have at least one working parent. But 12 percent of full-time workers earn less than $17,500 a year, compared with only 8 percent nationally. And women in the city — 48 percent of New Orleans children live in single-parent homes where there is no husband — are more likely to be in low-wage jobs. About 64,000 working women in the city earned less than $17,500 in the past year.
The report argues that low wages, rather than family structure, are at the root of the problem, despite pointing to a strong correlation between single-parent families and poverty. It cites other research showing that decent-paying jobs are often a prerequisite for stable marriages, meaning that single-parent homes and childhood poverty both tend to spring from the same underlying cause: poor wages.
“Indeed, as the real earnings of many Americans have declined over the past 50 years, men who have borne the brunt of these changes have been decreasingly likely to marry,” the report says.
The Data Center also points to research showing that poverty has damaging — and lasting — effects on young brains.
“Children in poverty are much more likely to experience exposure to violence, chronic neglect and the accumulated burdens of economic hardship,” the report says, and that can lead to “lifelong difficulties in learning, memory and self-regulation.”