CABL Releases Report on Poverty in Louisiana
Pervasiveness of Poverty Threatens Our Future
Released December 7, 1999
Despite some improvement in recent years, poverty in Louisiana remains pervasive, the state continues to trail the rest of the South in most key economic areas, and the future for all citizens in Louisiana is threatened.
Those are among the conclusions of a new CABL report, Fighting Poverty, Building Community. The report grew out of a two-year study of poverty in Louisiana by CABL’s Futures Institute, or “think tank.” The Futures Institute is a cross-section of about 20 citizens who, as the name implies, are interested in issues that affect Louisiana’s future. When they came together in 1997 they wanted to focus on an issue that impacts our state profoundly. They chose poverty.
The goal of the Futures Institute’s first report is simple, but important. It seeks to focus public attention on what poverty means to all citizens in the state, and develop the public “will” to move Louisiana out of its longstanding position as one of the poorest states in the nation. It is a difficult challenge, but one Louisiana must undertake.
With this study we are asking the state to look at itself in the mirror, confront an image of poverty that is shameful, and resolve to do something about it. As much as anything, this study shows us that poverty affects more than just those who are considered poor. It impacts us all, and threatens the future of our children and grandchildren.
Fighting Poverty, Building Community is an attempt to paint the “big picture” of poverty in Louisiana. It shows that a number of areas of constant concern in our state are directly influenced by the prevalence of poverty. It suggests that solving those problems satisfactorily will be difficult, without addressing the poverty which underlies them. Among the poverty-related problems facing the state:
- During the three-year period from 1996-1998, Louisiana had the second highest rate of poverty in the nation, and the highest in the South. Louisiana’s rate of 18.6 percent is exceeded only by New Mexico, and is well above the national rate of 13.2 percent.
- Of the 57 elementary and middle schools in Louisiana that received scores in the “academically unacceptable” category in 1999, virtually all were schools with high percentages of students in poverty.
- In a state perhaps best known for its food, many people require public assistance to get it. In 1998 12.1 percent of the population received food stamps, the second highest rate in the nation and far above the national average of 6.9 percent. In fact, that same year combined federal and state spending on food programs in Louisiana totaled nearly $700 million.
- According to data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Louisiana is the only Southern state where, since 1990, more people have moved out than moved in. Economists say one of the primary reasons is that those with the greatest opportunity to find well-paying jobs are searching for them elsewhere. The poor, who generally lack the means and mobility to seek opportunities in other areas, have little choice but to stay.
- Those same statistics show Louisiana achieved a meager 3.5 percent increase in population – the lowest in the South – only because the number of births in the state exceeded the net out migration. In 1997 Louisiana had the third highest teen birth rate in the nation (18.6 percent) and the second highest rate of children born to unmarried women (43.9 percent). The association between poverty and these groups is well documented and powerful.
The consequences of this for Louisiana’s future are clear. If we do not succeed in lifting more of our citizens out of poverty, then we will be left with a state that continues to spend a substantial amount of its resources assisting those in need, while many of those who are most able to contribute will be gone.
The report also tackles the question of why Louisiana has so much poverty. The Futures Institute determined that Louisiana appears to have some specific characteristics that perpetuate poverty. They include:
- A tradition, only now beginning to change, of devaluing education, which results in an inadequate system of public education.
- Relatively depressed wage rates and dramatically unequal distribution of wealth.
- A history of public corruption, which results in cynicism and cavalier and uncaring attitudes toward the poor and powerless.
- A veneration of the “status quo” which makes it difficult to bring about change, and for many people to improve their own circumstances.
- A lack of consensus about the importance of alleviating poverty to the future viability of the state.
It is that final point this report particularly seeks to change. As the report states: “For too long, Louisianans have reacted to reports about substandard education or unhealthy conditions or the continued absence of economic growth with world-weary resignation, an ‘I’ve heard all that before’ shrug of indifference. This response, repeated time and again, has not only detached us from what has become the nearly invisible suffering of others, it has also deadened us to our own possibilities.”
CABL hopes this study will be a catalyst to help improve that situation. It’s not an attempt to publish a laundry list of policy recommendations. Others have already done that. Its real goal is to get the attention of state leaders and the public, and help them understand the true consequences of our poverty.
CABL commends Gov. Mike Foster for his statement that alleviating poverty in Louisiana will be a priority of his second administration. We also applaud the efforts of those who are placing a focus on early childhood education, which is a critical component for helping children in poverty succeed in school.
CABL, for its part, is committed to both of these efforts. Beginning next year the organization will publish an updated version of its annual People’s Agenda “report card” on state government. That report will establish benchmarks for various indicators that describe quality of life in Louisiana, including several related to poverty. It will also set realistic goals for improvement in those areas, track the results and report on them regularly to the public and elected leaders.
Fighting Poverty, Building Community is being distributed to state elected leaders, policy makers, and organizations and individuals around the state. For a summary of the report click Executive Summary. The full report is available for $5.00 by calling the CABL office at (225) 344-2225, or e-mail us now.