In the decades since the heyday of the civil rights movement, black households in the New Orleans region have fallen further behind their white counterparts in economic terms, according to a new report.
Since the late 1970s, black residents' incomes have actually tumbled when adjusted for inflation, according to statistics in the report compiled by the Data Center, a local nonprofit organization, while white residents' incomes have held steady.
It's the group's first attempt to broadly scrutinize whether black residents of the city and the surrounding eight-parish area have made progress on measures of income and educational attainment in the post-Jim Crow era.
And the findings, which buck the national trend of generally higher incomes for both races, suggest that, despite numerous policy changes and interventions, “the dream of economic inclusion for African-American New Orleanians has not been fully realized,” chief authors Allison Plyer and Lamar Gardere wrote.
The report, "The New Orleans Prosperity Index: Tricentennial Edition," blames poor educational opportunities, an economy dominated by the low-wage tourism industry, and lingering discriminatory practices.
The authors argue that solving the problem will require a greater awareness by business leaders of discriminatory barriers, more funding for colleges and universities, a retooling of curricula to better match the needs of employers, and strategic investments in housing and public transit.
The report uses U.S. Census Bureau data as old as 1970 and as recent as 2016 to assess black progress over time.
Among the key findings:
- Across the region, white household incomes have held steady since 1979 when adjusted for inflation, but black household incomes have fallen by 7 percent. Nationally, both white and black incomes increased over the same time period.
- Within Orleans Parish over that period, black incomes have dropped by 15 percent, while white incomes have risen by nearly a third.
- In the city, the employment rate for black men fell by 11 percentage points, to 52 percent, from 1980 to 2016, while the rate for white men ticked up 3 points, to 79 percent, over that period. The rates for both black and white women have risen, though the rate for white women has increased by a larger margin.
- Since 1979, the percentage of black households designated as high-income has dropped by 3 points, while high-income white households grew by 5 points.
- More New Orleanians of all races are attending college than in 1980. But while more than 85 percent of white women and men have some college education, the same is true for only 55 percent of black women and 42 percent of black men, as of 2016.
Other data illustrate possible reasons for the income gaps.
New Orleans has a disproportionate share of black men in the criminal justice system, for example, even accounting for the city’s majority-black population.
That high incarceration rate may in turn be depressing the employment rate for black men, not only because so many black men are locked up, but because many employers are reluctant to hire men who have spent time in prison, the report notes.
Low wages are also a problem, as automation in recent decades has killed off many of the low-skilled port jobs that once provided a decent salary for black workers, and as low-paying tourism jobs have multiplied in their place.
Black residents’ ability to get high-skilled jobs also has been hampered by the city’s public and private K-12 school systems, which have not properly equipped black children for college, the report says.
While more New Orleanians are attending college today than years ago, the city’s college-going rate for black students still lags behind the national rate.
The report says one way New Orleans can address these issues is if it works to attract companies that provide water management innovations, a sector that is growing worldwide as climate change worsens.
Because digital-skills jobs are also in high demand — and will continue to be in the years to come, thanks in part to the arrival of DXC Technology, which promises to bring 2,000 jobs to New Orleans over the next seven years — colleges and universities should be better funded to respond to that need.
Training programs should also be tailored to match what employers want, the authors said. They said the recent merger of the city's Network for Economic Opportunity, which worked to match employers with job seekers, with the economic development-focused New Orleans Business Alliance can help with that.
Moreover, they said, investments in affordable housing and public transit are needed to ensure that people, when hired, can live near and get to their jobs.
Finally, employers need to be mindful of the unconscious biases that have helped foster oppression.
"Leaders in all sectors, not just economic development, can examine their own impact on minority communities and consider how they may be contributing to these disparities — thinking 'outside the box’ about how to turn them around,” the authors wrote.
The report is the most wide-ranging of several reviews the Data Center will release over the next few months, as part of a series timed for the city’s 300th anniversary.