If you’re from Bogalusa, and of a certain age, you probably did not think of yourself as being from a rural area. After all, in 1960, more than 20,000 called it home and several thousand families were supported by the good wages at the local paper mill.
Those days are gone.
Bogalusa almost is. Its population is almost halved, according to figures from the U.S. Census Bureau; the paper mill employs only a few hundred; median incomes in the city are barely half what they are statewide.
The city struggled to pay its bills and the state appointed a financial administrator to make the politically difficult cuts or revenue increases to seek to balance the books.
Bogalusa is the largest town in “fiscal administration,” but far from the only one. Some have, like Bogalusa, seen population and thus tax base plummet; others have made bad big bets, like Sterlington, near Monroe, where an expensive recreation complex was expected to generate large amounts of money, and didn’t.
Many more towns are suffering from falling populations but have made many smaller bad decisions, like avoiding rate increases for services like water and sewer. Once those systems break down, as they famously did in St. Joseph in Tensas Parish — leading to an expensive state bailout — repairing the damage is nigh impossible.
These are only the fiscal implications and not the social ones. In the Mississippi and Red River deltas, parishes have hollowed out, leaving dreadfully poor families mired in multiple generations of poverty. Rural poverty is at 25%, ahead of urban parishes’ 19%.
Louisiana is trying to grapple with its rural crisis. Gov. John Bel Edwards appointed a task force on the issue — or, really, issues — that plague rural areas. Its head: Ben Nevers, a former state senator from Bogalusa.
Among other issues, it will have to look at the costs of infrastructure — maintaining streets and pipes. “The footprint is the same, but the people have left,” Bogalusa Mayor Wendy Perrette told this newspaper last year.
The mayor of Detroit could say the same things. Governing anywhere in America is difficult. But it’s going to get even harder as not only population but wealth is increasingly concentrating in urban areas. The governor is asking for bold and comprehensive plans from task force members.
Whatever the governor’s task force comes up with, we hope that it looks at issues beyond the silos of traditional government agencies, outdated political boundaries and unrealistic expectations of state bailouts and other assistance. Those won’t grow community in a way that will make small towns and rural farms more viable.