New Orleans may have a surging real estate market, a popping restaurant scene and more tourists than ever, but evidence that all this has translated into broad-based economic gains for area residents in the years since Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession has been scant.
The latest worrying sign comes via the Brookings Institution, which released a report this week ranking the greater New Orleans area at the very bottom among the 100 biggest U.S. metro areas on key measures of prosperity.
Average wages, the overall standard of living and productivity all declined in New Orleans during the period from 2010 to 2015, Brookings found.
Baton Rouge didn't fare well either, ranking at No. 88 among the 100 cities analysed.
In looking at the metro New Orleans area, Brookings researchers considered an eight-parish region that included St. James Parish.
The liberal-leaning Washington think tank placed the latest figures within the context of a national economic recovery that it said has been slow to improve life for millions of U.S. workers.
"The nation’s employment rate has not returned to its pre-recession level despite a full jobs recovery in 2014," the report notes. "The median wage also remains below its 2007 level, reflecting the meager gains the middle class has made these last nine years."
Despite the report's seemingly grim tone, a City Hall spokesman said Friday that the numbers don't tell the whole story, contending that officials have "worked hard to diversify our local economy."
"While it is important to measure economic indicators for a metropolitan area, under Mayor (Mitch) Landrieu's leadership, we are specifically focused on strengthening New Orleans' economy," Landrieu spokesman Tyronne Walker said in a statement.
Still, Brookings isn't the first outfit to underscore the uneven gains New Orleans has made in the post-storm era.
Last year, Bloomberg ranked New Orleans as the third most unequal city in the U.S. among those with a population of 250,000 or more, using a measure of inequality called the Gini coefficient.
Four out of every 10 new jobs created in the city in recent years were in low-paying industries, such as hospitality, retail or administrative services, the Data Center, a local nonprofit, and Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program found in 2015. Higher-paying fields, like energy and manufacturing, saw little to no job gains.
The new report says that among the 100 largest metro areas, New Orleans ranked dead last on Brookings' measurements of prosperity, a formula that weighs factors such as average annual wage, standard of living and productivity — considered as the total economic output per job.
New Orleans was among just four metro areas that had across-the-board declines in each of the components of prosperity over the five years studied.
As the post-recession job market grew tighter, average wages increased in 93 of the metro areas — but not in New Orleans, where wages fell by 2 percent. The standard of living improved in 84 metro areas but held even in Baton Rouge and fell about 3 percent in New Orleans.
The report noted that 45 of the top 100 metro areas showed improvements in all three prosperity factors over the five years.
Productivity improved in fewer than half of the 100 largest metro areas, with the fastest growth occurring in places with a focus on research and technology-based industries, such as San Jose, California.
Productivity took the biggest hit in areas where the retail and hospitality sectors serve as big economic drivers, such as Baton Rouge, which saw a nearly 7 percent drop, and New Orleans, which fell almost 5 percent.
"These trends in overall performance show that, in many cases, prosperity measures diverged not only among large metro areas during this period, but also within them," the report said.
Baton Rouge received a composite ranking of 82nd for growth, which factors in gross metropolitan product, the number of new jobs and how many jobs were at young firms. New Orleans was No. 69 on that yardstick.
Just as New Orleans has worked to bolster its business climate to compete with higher-profile entrepreneurial hubs like Austin, Texas, the metro area saw its standing improve over the five-year stretch for benchmarks that measure changes in the size of the area's economy and its level of entrepreneurial activity.
But the report's data showed that the biggest share of actual job growth in the New Orleans area was in the restaurants industry, which saw a more than 26 percent gain over the five years, representing almost 9 percent of the area's total jobs in 2015.
Michael Hecht, president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., said the region's numbers took a hit in part because of the fall in oil prices, which began in mid-2014. It led to thousands of job losses throughout Louisiana and delayed new investment in planned industrial projects, he said.
"As well as the fact that, while other regions in the country were accelerating out of the Great Recession, our region was slowing down relative to the Katrina recovery," Hecht said.
Walker, the Landrieu spokesman, said city officials are focused on bolstering jobs in the digital, bio-innovation and health sectors.
"We have also been focused on creating greater inclusion, equity and prosperity for all New Orleanians by increasing investment in workforce development," he said.
Baton Rouge ranked No. 88 for inclusion, which considers an area's employment rate, median wage and relative income poverty — which measures the share of people who are at least 16 years old and earning less than half of the local median wage — to consider how the combined benefits of growth and prosperity are distributed to residents.
In that category, New Orleans ranked No. 56.