Why should we care about social and economic inequality in New Orleans?

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Why should we care about social and economic inequality in New Orleans?

Why should we care about social and economic inequality in New Orleans?

New Orleans, wants what every other American city wants, an ample supply of good jobs, a skilled workforce to fill those jobs, strong, stable neighborhoods, good schools, quality housing and an exciting environment in which to live, work, play and raise children. However, coming off a catastrophic disaster and plagued by lingering social and economic inequalities, New Orleans finds itself in a precarious position of being behind in the race for economic prosperity.

The subject of social and economic inequality is often topic of conversation in New Orleans. Many are aware of the issues which are too many to address in this piece. However, let’s look at a few factors as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau that sheds some light on the issue. In 2013, the median income in New Orleans was $36,631. This is compared to $45,981 for the region and $52,250 for the nation. The poverty rate of 27% is up from 21% in 2004 and is compared to a metro rate at 19% and the nation at 16%. The current median rent of $925 is up from $698 in 2004 with 37% of all renters experiencing severe cost burden, which is up from 24% in 2004.

These figures may not surprise many. What may not be apparent are the consequences of inequality for a community trying to regenerate itself.

Why should we care about inequality in New Orleans? We should care because extreme inequality can inhibit a community’s ability to support the attraction of private investment, job creation with livable wages, increased market diversification and more importantly, can stunt the social and civic infrastructure needed to sustain a vibrant community. We should care because New Orleans is a community with limited resources. Whether we accept it or not, the community cannot regenerate itself with the weight of extreme inequality on its back and expect to achieve a level of economic success which benefits the community comprehensively.

To put another way, we can try and mask social and economic inequality issues or ignore and hide its flaws but ultimately if not addressed appropriately will expose an injury to severe to recover from and signal to onlookers that New Orleans should not be taken serious as contender for long term investment . Sure, New Orleans can place a bandage on its injuries and will have moments of flash in the race for economic prosperity due in part to its natural strengths but may fall short in that it does not have the stamina needed to run a marathon race for economic growth and development.

While some can debate the impact the post Katrina regeneration efforts are having in New Orleans, its engagement is resulting in a rejuvenated medical sector, an active real estate market, increased private investment, housing rehabilitation, re-positioning of public housing, an active charter school movement, an increased spirit of entrepreneurship and a rise in population due in part to new comers moving to the city. By all accounts the initial efforts have moved New Orleans from being on life support in critical condition to being upgraded to stable and improving but under close observation.

However, let’s not get ahead of ourselves and fall into a trap in thinking the impact is comprehensive. New Orleans is far from being out of the woods. The close observation status is required due in large part to two issues. First, the systemic social and economic ills plaguing New Orleans (too many to list here) and how they will be treated and second, unintended consequences that may emerge from the rebuilding efforts that were not prevalent in the city (housing affordability for example) before the rebuilding efforts began and to what extent they are helping or adding additional problems in the city.

Getting a read on the convergence of these issues and how the community responds will provide insight into whether the community is headed toward a comprehensive urban regeneration effort or a fragmented effort which does little to mitigate long-term structural social and economic issues.

For a community working to regenerate in a highly competitive world, it can’t afford the negative consequences associated with inequality and be seen as a serious contender for economic growth and development. It’s just that simple.

This reality places a greater level of responsibility on the community to increasingly think creatively in solving local community development challenges. However, this is easier said than done. Some will want to continue to run outdated playbooks relying on self-interest, fragmentation, limited external support and declining resources and lead with, “but we always done it this way”, why change?

The challenge will be to resist such thinking and move toward collective efforts that energize the community in mitigating long-term social and economic constraints. How the community navigates this challenge shall determine if it can emerge as a cutting edge community to invest, live, work, learn and play and is seen as a true contender in the race for economic prosperity. This is why we should care.

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Eric Anthony Johnson, PhD