Gubernatorial candidates danced around all sorts of issues during the campaign, but never spoke directly about persistent poverty — the key reason why the state scores so low on so many rankings.
Incumbent Gov. John Bel Edwards and Republican challengers U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham and businessman Eddie Rispone did talk about the need for expanded early childhood education, better-funded higher education and enhanced worker training — all of which would help relieve poverty — but their exhortations included no beef on how such objectives could be achieved.
“There was a lot talk that we’re 50th, but not a lot talk about how we get off 50th, no details at all,” said Barry Erwin, who heads Council for a Better Louisiana, the Baton Rouge-based group that studies state government policies.
Poverty’s impact on education attainment, health care outcomes and workforce development all play a major role in the calculations of those state ratings. “It’s pretty easy to make the connection between our poverty situation and our rankings,” Erwin said.
Poverty rates in Louisiana dropped from 19.7% in 2017 to 18.6% in 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures released Sept. 26. Before celebrating too much, please note that rate is the third highest in the nation.
Poverty last year was defined as $25,100 annual income for a family of four. The national average was 13.1%.
More troubling is that Louisiana has continued to slide backward when compared to other states over the past 60 years.
Back in 1959, when the federal government took the first statistics that could be more accurately compared to present-day numbers, the national poverty rate was 24% of the population.
At 39.5%, Louisiana was ahead of Alabama, Arkansas, Mississippi and on par with Texas. Louisiana also was ahead of North Carolina and Virginia back then, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1959.
Of that list, Louisiana is now only outranked by Mississippi.
High poverty translates to lower wages overall.
In an extensive study in 2018, the United Way found that 48% of Louisiana households didn’t make enough money, despite sometimes working multiple jobs, to pay for housing, child care, food, transportation, health care, and technology. That’s the nation’s third-highest percentage.
“Think about it. Half of Louisiana is one financial emergency, a sprained ankle that keeps you out of work for a week or two, or a car repair away from being decimated,” said Jan Moller, head of the Baton Rouge-based Louisiana Budget Project, which analyzes the impact of state finances on low- and moderate-income people.
In terms of family median income, a reflection of how much businesses pay their employees, Louisiana ranked 39th in 1960 at $4,722 — ahead of North Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia. By 2017, Louisiana had fallen to 49th with $46,145, which is $14,191 lower than the national average of $60,336.
So, the Republican arguments that Edwards’ economy hasn’t kept up with the nation’s advances really apply to every governor since Earl K. Long.
Experts, according to a Pew Foundation study, say “the same factors that caused poverty decades ago persist today.” Those conditions include a poorly educated and less trained workforce, fewer residents covered by health insurance, job growth primarily focused in metropolitan areas and long commutes to those major cities.
This issue is not more jobs, Moller and Erwin agree, but better-paying jobs with benefits. For instance, back in 1960, New Orleans was a hub for banking, oil and gas exploration and shipping. Since then, those white-collar jobs have moved to Atlanta and Houston, leaving New Orleans with shipping and a growing tourism industry that needs hotel and restaurant hires that pay far less and often don’t include quality insurance.
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“Nearly half of our neighbors are struggling to get by in this state,” Moller said. “That’s who needs government policy to work for them.”
Political strategists probably kept their candidates from talking too much about poverty, which led to the meat-free debate.
What the gubernatorial campaign really showed, however, is a lack of interest in the issue among voters — the very people who pay the premiums poverty exacts on public schools, health care and law enforcement.
Moller isn’t judging, but the reality is that Louisiana residents socialize with people of like means living near each other, shopping together, talking about their needs to each other during their kids’ soccer practice.
“They’re not aware of how the other half lives,” Moller said. “And if you’re working two or three jobs paying $8 an hour, you don’t have the luxury to volunteer for Boy Scouts and participate more with your children.”