As a pale assed white boy from Massachusetts my experience in the Pelican State has been atypical. Though inextricably linked through language, culture and food in unique and defining ways, black people and white people in Louisiana tend to remain on their own sides of the tracks. The Louisiana that I know so well and have assimilated myself into over these many years is the one most white people only ever see by accident.
And while this has afforded me a rare opportunity to break through some long standing social barriers in a state suffering from an overabundance of ignorance and bigotry on both sides of those tracks, there is one common factor linking Louisianans of all shades and hues: poverty.
Opelousas St. Black side of the tracks.
Over the years I have visited family all across the state. While most of my experience has been in black areas, I have certainly travelled through and seen poor neighborhoods of every variety. They are largely indistinguishable from one another.
One thing the state has going for it that distinguishes it from high-poverty states like Mississippi is the median income has remained constant for several years. The rate remains high but isn't getting worse.
Still, Louisiana has not followed a troubling national trend of increasing poverty over the last 12 years. While the country has seen a rise in the country's poverty rate since 2000 (12.2 percent to 15.9 percent), Louisiana's poverty rate has stayed essentially the same, hovering around 20 percent.
Compared with poverty rates released last year, Louisiana's situation has actually improved. The state saw a half percent decrease in its percentage of poor people from 2011 to 2012, though the U.S. Census says this could be a statistical anomaly.
Particularly after hurricanes Katrina and Rita and the BP oil disaster brought a decade of Federal relief funds to the state, corporate profits have risen as workers have seen their wages largely stagnate. This is true for the nation as a whole, but in a state so poor and stricken by repeated disasters the result is particularly hard felt.
The report, “State of Working Louisiana 2013,” found the typical worker’s pay increased by only 1 percent since 1979, but worker productivity has increased by 35 percent over that span. Louisiana workers are still facing wage gaps — men still make more than women and whites still make more money than blacks. The largest pay gap is between people with different levels of educational attainment, with those who have at least a bachelor’s degree earning $8.26 an hour ($17,000 per year) more than those without one.Some of my in laws live below the poverty line while holding regular, full time jobs. I have a cousin in Lake Charles with master's degrees in chemical engineering coming from a family with parents earning a six figure income from 30 year careers at Citgo. These are top line jobs for the state and are particularly rare for black folks. Still, this cousin, like his less well off relatives, finds himself struggling and in hock to Payday Loans. This widespread national disgrace is a symbol of the predatory disfunction of our contemporary economy. Having a job, even a good one, is no guarantee of being able to escape the cycle so endemic to places with continuous social and economic disenfranchisement.
Payday lenders knowingly trap thousands of Louisianans in long-term cycles of debt that often results in bankruptcy, bank account overdrafts and delinquency on other bills. Payday lending also drains money from local and state economies, and it is correlated with higher rates of violent crime, property crime and home foreclosure.
Whenever I go to visit I am reminded of the responsibility my wife and I have to our two boys to help them understand that their relatively privileged lives do not reflect the circumstances of so many in their extended families. It is incumbent upon us to see they experience this reality first hand and without a filter, and know they are family.
A wonderful thing about Louisiana is the pleasure people take in the physical beauty of their environment. Like the cuisine, the fertile land is inherent in the lives of Louisianans. In the poorest areas one will find nature framing things on almost every corner.
Because of the bounty of this land and water, most people can find food to gather on their own with a little effort and desire. Fishing and crabbing for family meals is a custom and a pastime for many. Some folks earn a bit more of a living from it, even just on weekends. Such tradition is a cherished custom in the state. Though permits cost money, there is no shortage of small local buyers and vendors willing to purchase your surplus. This is especially true in deep Acadiana around Lafayette. Tiny operations like this can be the difference between outright poverty and just scraping by.
As my boys grow older and begin to understand the complex dynamics of class and race that will inform their adult lives, my hope is they will learn to embrace the cultural and socioeconomic disparity inherent in their diverse family. It would be easy to shield them from the family truths of government cheese and welfare on the one hand while vacationing at their island in Maine on the other.
Already they are understanding their true privilege lies not just in the richness of culture and experience inherent in their family, but in their ability to leave the poverty behind by getting in the car and driving home. They know that's not a choice for their people back in Louisiana and it has weighed heavily on them at times. Many difficult questions have been asked in the last year as my oldest approaches his middle school years.
It can be difficult to reconcile the fecundity of Louisiana with the endemic poverty and inequity. This story is as old as the place itself. It's as old as European expansion into the new world and as slavery and Reconstruction. It's a story of enormous wealth driven by brutal agriculture; of herons and alligators at the doorstep of Big Oil and Chemical plants. Such is the dysfunctional nature of a place at once so beautiful and so hostile to life and to people. These realities are inescapable for far too many.
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