A Report by the CABL Futures Institute
Fighting Poverty, Building Community
Executive Summary 1999
Fighting Poverty, Building Community is a report from a group of Louisiana leaders who are concerned about issues that affect the state’s future. To consider these issues, the group formed, under the auspices of the Council for A Better Louisiana, a Futures Institute. There is no more pressing issue than poverty; its scope and persistence cast a permanent shadow over efforts to move the state and its people forward. We devoted substantial time and effort to understanding what poverty means to the lives of individuals and to the future of the state and to explore approaches to it.
Members of the Futures Institute have very different backgrounds, perspectives and beliefs. We found, however, through our exploration of poverty and its impact on Louisiana, that there are common threads that bind us. Chief among these is a belief that changing the status of Louisiana’s poorest citizens and transforming a condition that for too long has defined our state begins with raising the awareness of a broad array of Louisianans.
Consequently, our goal in this report is not to present a series of policy prescriptions nor is it to articulate any one ideological perspective on poverty and the issues that are related to it. Unlike many documents that consider poverty, we do not seek to blame government, institutions or individuals for the continued presence of a problem that has for too long characterized our state, limited our progress and constricted the lives of our people. Our concern here is less about formulating a specific plan to combat poverty than it is about helping to develop the will and dedication among our citizens to confront the issue of poverty and its effects on all of us.
Poverty in Louisiana is everyone’s concern. The economic progress that so many of us have made threatens to blind us to an inevitable reckoning – we continue to lag behind neighboring states in almost every measure of economic and social well being. Unless we make a concerted effort to change these conditions our future – and those of our children and grandchildren – is certain to be limited. Thus, the change we speak of requires not only awareness of the dimensions of poverty and its devastating consequences, it means caring about them too. Caring must begin in those places that are most threatened by continued poverty – Louisiana’s communities.
Poverty in Louisiana
We have a long way to go before poverty is no longer central to any description of Louisiana. Despite measurable progress in the South and in the state, poverty’s grasp on Louisiana’s citizens has not loosened. During 1996-1998, 18.6 percent of Louisianans were poor, well above the national rate of just over 13 percent. Mid-way through this decade, virtually one-quarter of all families in the state earned less than $10,000 – well below the federal poverty line of $15,150 for a family of four.
Income disparity – the gap between the state’s wealthiest and its poorest citizens, long the highest in the nation – is growing.
Poverty is pervasive in Louisiana and it does not discriminate, snaring people from every age group and race. It is equally at home in rural communities and urban neighborhoods. It traps families, and poor families mean poor children. Louisiana has a greater proportion of children living in poverty than any other state in the nation. Many poor children live in single-parent families and, in Louisiana, the number of such families is likely to grow given the state’s high rate of births to single women. In 1997, 43.9 percent of all infants were born to single women, well above the national average of 32.4 percent.
Poverty is more than an individual’s status as measured by income. The limited choices that are associated with poverty have devastating consequences that are passed on from parent to child in a continuing cycle of despair. The Futures Institute examined some of these.
Health. Poverty too often means poor health. Children are most vulnerable to this condition. Many of Louisiana’s children are behind at birth; no state has a higher rate of low birth weight babies. The health risks that infants from poor families face do not diminish as they grow. The significant likelihood of having significant health problems if one is poor continues through adulthood to old age – low income senior citizens are more likely to experience health problems than their middle- and upper-income peers. The health problems that are faced by the poor are exacerbated by their limited access to health care.
Education. Academic achievement often eludes low-income students, limiting the means by which, as adults, they can leave poverty behind and become self-sufficient. The scores of Louisiana students on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam are well below national averages. In 1998, just 19 percent of Louisiana’s fourth graders and 18 percent of its eighth graders performed at or above the proficient level on the NAEP reading exam. These gaps are due in part to teaching; low-income students are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers or by teachers who are teaching out of their fields. Poor instruction is often compounded by low funding; Louisiana was 45th in the nation in per pupil spending in the 1997-1998 school year.
Ill-prepared teachers, low expectations, and inadequate resources are not the only problems poor children face in school. Too often, they are steered away from the courses that will best prepare them for successful futures. Today’s rapidly changing economy, an economy that values critical thinking and flexibility, has little room for the low-skill, labor-intensive jobs that have been a staple of Louisiana’s economy in the past. The value of postsecondary training becomes starkly evident when we consider individual income by educational achievement.
Violence. Louisiana has been called one of the “most dangerous states in the nation.” The high incidence of violent crime in Louisiana is not surprising given its high rate of poverty. There is evidence that those with poor prospects in the job market are more likely to engage in criminal activity than those more able to secure positions in the labor market. Those living in poverty are also more likely to be victims of crime.
Housing. Safe and secure housing is central to the American dream and is well within the reach of middle- and upper-income citizens. It continues, however, to elude the poor. At a time when home ownership rates are climbing all across the nation and are at their highest level in history, they are falling in Louisiana, which now ranks in the bottom quarter of states in home ownership. As home ownership declines in the state, homelessness increases. In New Orleans, although men still comprise the largest group of the city’s homeless, the number of homeless single women and families with children is increasing.
Hunger. Those in poverty face a constant threat of hunger. Malnutrition among the poor is increasing, and it is children who suffer most from inadequate diets. Very young children are most affected – their cognitive development can be substantially impeded.
Why does Louisiana have so much poverty?
Why should Louisiana – a place so connected to the call of family and community, so celebrated for traditions of warmth and hospitality, and so reliant for much of its livelihood on the positive feelings and goodwill of others – afford so many of its people so little comfort?
We grappled at length with this question. Louisiana, some believe, has particular characteristics that perpetuate poverty. Among them are:
- A tradition of devaluing education and the inadequate public education system that results.
- 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.
The persistence of poverty has engendered many responses, among them the creation of significant organizations dedicated to attacking one or another aspect of it. Without their leadership, the problems we address here would be compounded and hope, for many, would be further diminished. Still more, however, must be done, and the state itself must take more notice of and responsibility for the effects of poverty on all of its citizens. It is insufficient to advocate economic development and job creation without connecting them to comprehensive community development and adequate and effective social services as related means to alleviate poverty.
Policy then remains important in any efforts to rid ourselves of poverty and members of the Futures Institute identified many pressure points for change. Education is of primary importance. Central to improving education is the provision of competent and caring teachers for all students. Yet, while reforming education is crucial, our greatest priority may be to focus on a child’s earliest years and to do it as comprehensively as possible.
Others believed that concentration on education and social services would not overcome the effects of policies that seem to guarantee inequality. Until the tax system is reformed and poor persons are provided with tangible reasons to earn and save, structural inequalities will continue to be obstacles to positive change.
Toward a Caring Community
We believe that the Louisiana of the future will be shaped by a choice between two competing possibilities: one where the status quo prevails and poverty continues to blight the state, and a second where citizens devote their skills, energy and concern to creating a caring community – one that is informed, connected and engaged.
We believe that real and lasting change depends upon bringing citizens together to create and nurture these communities. In emphasizing the central role of individuals we do not overlook that of government or policymakers. Overcoming our history of poverty will not happen without fundamental change in policy. Our emphasis, however, reflects a view that the insights and strengths of the community are often the best and most reliable catalysts for change and, once they have been fully expressed, should be relied on to guide emerging policies.
Creation of a caring community will not take place overnight. Extricating ourselves from poverty’s grip will require both a sense of urgency and the patience to persevere. There are, however, some immediate benefits from our investment in caring communities. The first is awareness of, and sensitivity to, the presence of so many poor people in the midst of our prosperity. Second is a greater appreciation of the ties that bind us to one another – a strengthening of the state’s social fabric. The third is increased personal and community expectations. We have not only become blind to the suffering of others, we have also deadened ourselves to our own possibilities. Creation of caring communities can lead to new hope in and for Louisiana.
Copies of the full report are available for $5.00 each from the Council for A Better Louisiana, P.O. Box 4308, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 70821. Phone us at (225) 344-2225 or e-mail us now.