When community organizer Cristiane Rosales-Fajardo took the podium Thursday to discuss the hardships thousands of Louisianians face, she went a little off script.
Rather than simply highlight immigrant communities’ lack of access to health care — as her printed speech outlined — the Brazilian immigrant instead told a crowd of reporters how earning little money and having spotty insurance has taken a personal toll on her.
“Just three days ago, I was diagnosed with cervical cancer,” she said. After sharing her results, her doctor asked Rosales-Fajardo why she had let four years elapse since her last visit, as an earlier checkup might have uncovered her condition.
“My answer was: I couldn’t afford it,” she said.
Rosales-Fajardo emerged Thursday as the face of a report from Loyola University’s Jesuit Social Research Institute that places Louisiana last in the nation on an index measuring social justice in various communities.
The concept of social justice, which is the Jesuit university’s cornerstone principle, is that every person deserves the same economic, social and political opportunities. Quantifying that somewhat abstract notion meant poring over a host of state data measuring poverty, racial inequity and immigrant exclusion, the report’s authors said.
Within those three broad classifications, the report homes in on several indicators: average household income, health insurance coverage for low-income and immigrant communities, immigrants’ English proficiency, public school segregation, earnings and employment gaps between whites and minorities, housing affordability and the percentage of immigrant young adults not in school or working.
All 50 states and the District of Columbia were given a score from 0 to 1 on each of those indicators and on the three broader areas. Those were compiled into one overall score for the index, which gave Louisiana 0.3814 points out of a possible 1, placing it last in the U.S.
No state earned a perfect score. Vermont earned the highest, a 0.9045.
The report was financed by a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant.
Among the indicators that led to Louisiana’s dismal score were its average income for low-income households, which at $11,156 is about $4,100 below the national average; its proportion of low-income households without health insurance (32 percent); and its high degree of racial segregation in schools.
There’s also a wide disparity in Louisiana between the wages earned by similarly situated whites and minorities — a difference of about 21 percent, according to the report. Likewise, the gap between unemployment rates for whites and minorities is about 6 percentage points.
Close to 35 percent of immigrants in Louisiana have difficulty speaking English. That’s higher than the national average but lower than the rate in Texas of almost 42 percent.
The authors attributed the wage and employment differences to race-based discrimination in hiring and inequitable educational opportunities. They said potential remedies might include better enforcing labor discrimination laws, creating voluntary affirmative action programs and giving all children access to a quality education. The report suggested income inequality and lack of access to health care might be partly addressed by raising wages and expanding Medicaid.
Some of those steps are already in the works, economic policy specialist Jeanie Donovan said. She highlighted Gov. John Bel Edwards’ push to expand Medicaid and give health coverage to more families and a bill filed in the Legislature that would double the state’s earned income tax credit, which benefits low-income families. She also praised various nonprofit and faith-based organizations that work to help employees receive the pay they deserve.
In an interview, Rosales-Fajardo praised the federal Affordable Care Act, which she said has allowed her to afford health insurance again. But she noted the law doesn’t extend coverage to undocumented immigrants, who she said have swelled in the New Orleans area recently due to a coffee plague and escalating gang violence in Central America.
“Do I have an answer for what needs to happen tomorrow? No,” she said. “But I’m glad this report is going to look at it and call it out for what it is.”
Follow Jessica Williams on Twitter, @jwilliamsNOLA.