Nearly 10 years after Hurricane Katrina decimated New Orleans’ infrastructure, the city still faces myriad problems, including a failing school system, broken-down streets and federal consent decrees mandated for the city’s jail and Police Department. But topping the list, according to New Orleans City Council members, are two issues: an income inequality that continues to crush the city’s poorest residents and violent crime.
Crime and income inequality aren’t unrelated, Councilman Jason Williams said Saturday during a 2015 Legislative Breakfast presented by the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, along with the New Orleans and Pontchartrain chapters of The Links Inc.
The forum, hosted at Algiers Regional Library, gave residents a chance to address city officials, asking for solutions to the social, economic and political disparities that directly impact the quality of life for African-Americans and other residents in New Orleans.
“The problem occurs far earlier than when a gun is put in someone’s face,” Williams said about the city’s high crime rate. He added that underpaid police officers continue to leave the New Orleans Police Department in startling numbers, and that New Orleans still is in dire need of workforce development programs to train young people in skills needed for higher-paying jobs, encouraging them out of a life of crime and into the local workforce.
Recent statistics support Williams’ claim that the city is in need of better policing, more jobs for African-American residents and better opportunities for the impoverished or underpaid.
Year-end numbers released by the NOPD showed that while the murder rate once again was down in 2014, there were dramatic spikes in violent crime, including a 24 percent rise in nonfatal shootings. And a 2013 report released by Loyola University showed that approximately 52 percent of working-age black men were unemployed or not in the working force in 2011.
Some City Council members said they’re working on making New Orleans a more affordable city for all its residents. At the breakfast, Councilman Jared Brossett cited the “living wage ordinance” he recently introduced, calling it the first of many steps needed to lift low-income workers out of poverty and improve residents’ quality of life.
The ordinance would require employers with more than $25,000 in annual city contracts or recipients of more than $100,000 in city grants to pay their employees at least $10.10 an hour and provide a minimum of seven paid sick days a year.
“Affordability is a big issue in this city,” Brossett said, citing rising property taxes and rents, which worsen the burden created by low wages paid in several industries in the city. Together, these issues make the cost of living in Orleans Parish the highest of any parish in the state, he said.
“Income inequality — I don’t need to tell y’all this. It’s vast. I mean, we were compared to Zambia, as far as income inequality,” he said. “That is ridiculous, as we are part of one of the richest and strongest nations on this planet.”
The impetus behind Brossett’s proposal, added Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey,was a disparity between white and African-American workers in New Orleans that seemed to be getting worse over time.
“It’s always interesting to me to read in magazines and news articles and in press releases about all the wonderful things that are going on in our city,” Ramsey said. “But we all know that this economic boom is not being shared across the board in all of our communities.”
She said she supports Brossett’s ordinance because it would help local families who are unable to pay utility bills, afford prescriptions or send their children to day care.
“We see the top of what can go on in a community, but unfortunately we can also see the bottom of what happens when we don’t support families,” Ramsey said.
Brossett said he is looking for feedback on his proposal. It’s important, he said, to keep the conversation going, so more people become aware of problems low-income workers face and potential legislative solutions to help resolve them.
“Many living wage ordinances exist throughout the country in other cities, so why can’t it in New Orleans?” he asked.
Williams reiterated the value of getting regular feedback from constituents and praised the National Coalition of 100 Black Women for organizing events where topics such as inequality and crime could be discussed.
“When we start to figure out where to spend money first, it helps to hear from the people who we work for — what is the priority?” Williams said. “One of the things I’ve been hearing more and more is about real opportunity and real access, because the folks believe that will deal with some of the ills that are in place, such as crime.”