More than 30 years ago, I was a young newspaper reporter, fresh out of journalism school and eager to save world. Assigned to cover the city government of West Monroe, Louisiana, I found myself spending time with the city’s dynamic new mayor, Dave Norris.
Dave – who is still mayor of West Monroe — had also been my college economics professor at what was then Northeast Louisiana University (now ULM) and he remains a good friend.
Over time, in fact, Dave became more than a source for news. He became a mentor.
Among the many ways Dave blessed my life was his work gently challenging my narrow world view, especially when it came to how I regarded those living in poverty, supporting their families with government assistance.
At the time, I’m embarrassed to confess, I was not among the most sympathetic toward the plight of the thousands of working poor in our state — the people who tried so hard to provide for their families but never seemed to be able to earn enough to pay the grocery and doctor bills.
In fact, I would say that my attitude about those caught in poverty’s grip was somewhere between scorn and indifference. It certainly was not sympathy.
Dave knew that, but I don’t think he judged me harshly. Instead, decided to teach me.
So, he gently fed me a steady diet of scholarly articles and statistics about our welfare system, some of which began to open my eyes and gradually changed my opinions about people who accepted government assistance.
One statistic that Dave revealed to me, and that sticks in my mind even today, was that fully one-fourth of the American public had, at one time or another, accepted some form of welfare, but only temporarily. In other words, for most people, welfare was a way up, not a way of life.
Dave helped me to understand that people generally are proud, industrious and want to work. They want to make a better life for themselves and their children. And they know that life on the welfare rolls is not the way to accomplish those goals. But, there are times, when someone loses his job or gets injured at work, when our society is there to step in and keep a family from falling into the abyss.
Those articles and statistics began to change my perceptions of poverty and welfare. But they were only statistics. Then, Dave pushed me a bit harder and encouraged me to encounter these people first hand.
I vividly remember riding one evening, shortly before Christmas in 1982, with the chief of police of West Monroe as he delivered Christmas presents on behalf of his officers to needy parents who so desperately wanted their children to experience the joy of Christmas morning. That was a memorable and moving experience and it opened my eyes a little wider.
Nothing, however, opened my eyes more than the morning I spent at the local welfare office. I decided to do a story on the struggles of people as they staggered through the bureaucracy. I decided that I needed to know something about these peoples’ challenges.
So, I got there early and I stayed all morning. I tried not to intrude, but just dissolve into the background as best I could. I just observed.
And what I saw opened my eyes wide.
For the first time, I saw real people, some with jobs, many without. These were decent people, with children, who wanted nothing more than to bring home enough food to eat. They wanted to buy their kids decent clothes. They wanted to know there was a doctor they could call when those kids got sick. They wanted to know that when dinnertime came, there would be something decent in the pantry to feed the kids. They wanted to know that when winter came, there was something warm to put on the kids before sending them off to school. And when it came to sending the kids off to school, they wanted a decent school that would teach them the basics in a safe and nurturing environment.
In short, these people didn’t want to live like Donald Trump, but they also didn’t want to condemn their children and their children’s children to a life of neglect, ignorance, and discrimination.
They mostly wanted enough. Just enough to make a decent life. And what they sometimes found at the welfare office was often just enough to keep their families from shattering.
Today, more than thirty years later, I can remember the lead of my story.
I wrote, simply, “It was early, but not too early for despair.”
What I saw that day were very personal and heartbreaking dramas that unfold in so many lives, mostly away from the peering eyes of a newspaper reporter.
I watched people in anguish and fear over what would become of their lives and their children. I also observed anger and hopelessness. I remember thinking at the time that someone should do something to help this family pay its light bill. Or someone really should help this child who needs medical care.
In other words, I thought, someone should have mercy on these people.
Many years later, however, what I came to realize was this: That as much as these people needed mercy, they desperately needed someone (a governor, perhaps) to devote his or her energies to achieving something far more valuable.
These people needed justice.
More than thirty years later, I’m ashamed that Louisiana hasn’t done so well in either the mercy or justice department. More than thirty years of children have been born into poverty-stricken communities that haven’t changed much since the days when I first saw the despair that Monroe welfare office.
The sad fact is that those 30 years represent decades of lost chances to build opportunities for better lives for our children. They represent thirty years of injustice and suffering — because our state and national leadership has regarded poverty as an unfortunate fact of life — and not a scandal and a cause for national shame.
According to the National Priorities Project, almost 19 percent of Louisiana’s citizens, one in five, live in poverty. Put another way, that’s 825,000 Louisiana residents. See a chart comparing the states here.
But the numbers are far worse when you look at children.
According to the Annie E. Casey Foundation’s annual rankings of the states, Louisiana has ranked 49th among the states in overall child well-being since 2002. In its most recent collection of data, the Casey Foundation ranked Louisiana among the bottom ten states on nine out of the ten key measures of child well-being. See a summary of the report here.
If you are a child, Louisiana is one of the worst places in this country to grow up.
Twenty seven percent, almost a third, of all children in this state live in poverty. That’s 285,000 children. See a chart on Louisiana’s child poverty numbers here.
Louisiana ranks 46th out of the 50 states in the percentage of children in poverty. Only Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico and Mississippi fare worse. See the state rankings here.
It’s a depressing situation for a state whose leaders don’t seem even remotely willing to face up to the enormous challenges facing us.
Today, in Louisiana, we have the equivalents of three Tiger Stadiums full to the brim with children living in poverty.
Among our state’s many problems, it’s our largest and most vexing. It should be the top priority of every legislator and our governor.
So, I leave you with these partially rhetorical questions: How much time did legislators devote to addressing poverty in the 2012 legislative session (beyond a half-baked effort to improve the bottom line of faith-based private schools)?
How much do our leaders really care about ridding Louisiana of an economic cancer that threatens the future of 285,000 Louisiana children?
Next, we’ll discuss how we tax the poor in Louisiana and why it should be a scandal.