Half of New Orleans's Poor Permanently Displaced: Failure or Success?
By Bill Quigley
Government reports confirm that half of the working poor, elderly and disabled who lived in New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina have not returned. Because of critical shortages in low-cost housing, few now expect tens of thousands of poor and working people to ever be able to return home.
The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) reports Medicaid, medical assistance for aged, blind, disabled and low-wage working families, is down 46 percent from pre-Katrina levels. DHH reports before Katrina there were 134,249 people in New Orleans on Medicaid. February 2008 reports show participation down to 72,211 (a drop of 62,038 since Katrina). Medicaid is down dramatically in every category: by 50 percent for the aged, 53 percent for the blind, 48 percent for the disabled and 52 percent for children.
The Social Security Administration documents that fewer than half the elderly have returned. New Orleans was home to 37,805 retired workers who received Social Security before Katrina; now there are 18,940 - a 50 percent reduction. Before Katrina, there were 12,870 disabled workers receiving Social Security disability benefits in New Orleans, now there are 5,350 - that's 59 percent fewer. Before Katrina, there were 9,425 widowers in New Orleans receiving Social Security survivors benefits; now there are less than half that many - 4,140.
Children of working-class families have not returned. Public school enrollment in New Orleans was 66,372 before Katrina. Latest figures are 32,149 - a 52 percent reduction.
Public transit usage numbers are down 75 percent since Katrina. Prior to Katrina, there were frequently over 3 million rides per month. In January 2008, there were 732,000 rides. The Regional Transit Authority says the reduction reflects that New Orleans now has far fewer poorer, transit-dependent residents.
Figures from the Louisiana Department of Social Services show the number of families receiving food stamps in New Orleans has dropped from 46,551 in June 2005 to 22,768 in January 2008. Welfare numbers are also down. The Louisiana Families Independence Temporary Assistance Program was down from 5,764 recipients (mostly children) in July 2005 to 1,412 in the latest report.
While there are no precise figures on the racial breakdown of poor and working people who are still displaced, indications strongly suggest they are overwhelmingly African- American. The black population of New Orleans has plummeted by 57 percent, while white population fell 36 percent, according to census data. Areas that are fully recovering are more affluent and predominately white. New Orleans, which was 67 percent black before Katrina, is estimated to be no higher than 58 percent black now.
The reduction in poor and low-wage workers in New Orleans is no surprise to social workers. Don Everard, director of social service agency Hope House, says New Orleans is a much tougher town for poor people than before Katrina. "Housing costs a lot more and there is much less of it," says Everard. "The job market is also very unstable. The rise in wages after Katrina has mostly fallen backwards and people are not getting enough hours of work on a regular basis."
The displacement of tens of thousands of people is now expected to be permanent because there is both a current shortage of affordable housing and no plan to create affordable rental housing for tens of thousands of the displaced.
In the most blatant sign of government action to reduce the numbers of poor people in New Orleans, the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is demolishing thousands of intact public housing apartments. HUD is spending nearly $1 billion with questionable developers to end up with much less affordable housing. Right after Katrina, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson predicted New Orleans was "not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again." He then worked to make that prediction true.
According to Policy Link, a national research institute, the crisis in affordable housing means barely two in five renters in Louisiana can return to affordable homes. In New Orleans, all the funds currently approved by HUD and other government agencies (not spent, only approved) for housing for low-income renters will only rebuild one-third of the pre-Katrina affordable rental housing stock.
Hope House sees 400 to 500 needy people a month. "Most of the people we see are working people facing eviction or utility cutoffs, or they are already homeless," reports Everard. The New Orleans homeless population has already doubled from pre-Katrina numbers to approximately 12,000 people. Everard noted that because of FEMA's recent announcement that it was closing 35,000 still-occupied trailers across the Gulf Coast, homelessness is likely to get a lot worse.
United Nations officials recently called for an immediate halt to the demolition of public housing in New Orleans, saying demolition is a violation of human rights and will force predominately black residents into homelessness. "The spiraling costs of private housing and rental units, and in particular the demolition of public housing, puts these communities in further distress, increasing poverty and homelessness," said a joint statement by UN experts in housing and minority issues. "We therefore call on the federal government and state and local authorities to immediately halt the demolition of public housing in New Orleans." Similar calls have been made by Senators Clinton and Obama. Despite these calls, the demolitions continue.
The rebuilding has gone as many planned. Right after Katrina, one wealthy businessman told The Wall Street Journal, "Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically." Elected officials, from national officials like President Bush and HUD Secretary Jackson to local city council members, who are presumably sleeping in their own beds, apparently concur. Policies put in place so far do not appear overly concerned about the tens of thousands of working poor, elderly and disabled who are not able to come home.
The political implications of a dramatic reduction in poor and working - mostly African-American - people in New Orleans are straightforward. The reduction directly helps Republicans, who have fought for years to reduce the impact of the overwhelmingly Democratic New Orleans on statewide politics in Louisiana. In the jargon of political experts, Louisiana, before Katrina, was a "pink state." The state went for Clinton twice and then for Bush twice, with US senators from each party. The forced relocation of hundreds of thousands, mostly lower-income and African-American, could alter the balance between the two major parties in Louisiana and also change the opportunities for black elected officials in New Orleans.
Given the political and governmental officials and policies in place now, one of the major casualties of Katrina will be the permanent displacement of tens of thousands of African-Americans, the working poor, their children, the elderly and the disabled.
Those who wanted a different New Orleans rebuilt probably see the concentrated displacement as a success. However, if the test of a society is how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members, the aftermath of Katrina earns all of us a failing grade.