By Robert Mann
If there is an issue more important to Louisiana’s future than our state’s crippling, chronic poverty, I can’t imagine it. Few states have higher rates of poor people than Louisiana – and generation after generation of our children are consigned by fate and cruel or misguided policies to lives of hopeless deprivation.
You’d think that a governor’s race would generate a lively debate over how to improve those lives. Well, you’d be wrong. Poverty is a crisis the candidates don’t discuss. And, trust me, if they aren’t talking about it now, don’t expect much after one of them is elected.
If we accepted the compelling research that suggests a child born into poverty is likely to remain poor for life (in other words, the idea of social mobility is largely a myth in the United States), perhaps we would be more eager to address the problem. Instead, we seem resigned to poverty’s cruel reality. In other words, we are content with a virtual caste system in which being poor is an inheritance, not a scandal.
Louisiana has the nation’s third-highest poverty rate, according to the latest (2013) figures from the American Community Survey. As the Louisiana Budget Project (LBP) put it last September, “Nearly one in five Louisianans — 888,019 people, or 19.8 percent of the population — lived below the federal poverty line [in 2013].”
Children are poverty’s worst victims. Last December, NOLA.com | Times-Picayune reporter Emily Lane wrote a disturbing story about the endemic poverty that afflicts Louisiana’s youth. U.S. Census Bureau data show, Lane wrote, that Louisiana has the fourth-highest poverty rate among school-age children – 27 percent. In Orleans Parish, it’s 39 percent. Two northeast Louisiana parishes, East Carroll and Madison, had stunning child poverty rates of 58 percent and 55 percent, respectively.
Those same Census data show that Louisiana is 49th in income inequality. Put another way, according to the Center for American Progress, “The share of income going to the top 20 percent of households in Louisiana was 18.5 times that going to the bottom 20 percent of households in 2013.”
Speaking of inequality, it’s not bad enough just to be poor in Louisiana. You can also count on state and local governments taxing you twice as much as the wealthy. A 2013 study of states by the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy found that Louisiana families earning less than $16,000 a year paid an average of 10.6 percent of their income in state and local sales, property and income taxes. The same taxes accounted for only 4.6 percent of income for families earning $418,000 or more.
“For far too long, state government has focused on improving the lot of those who already are doing well,” the LBP’s Director Jan Moller told me. “The focus needs to return to helping those who need a hand up – or a stronger safety net to keep from falling through the cracks.”
So, what do the gubernatorial candidates say about our scourge of poverty? Not much.
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