TEN years of uneven recovery have exacerbated the economic inequalities that predated Hurricane Katrina, says Louisiana SEIU local 21LA.
Without a doubt, the economic progress of the last ten years has not been felt equally and the data shows that poor families, particularly those of colour, continue to lag behind their richer, white counterparts, the union added.
The local New Orleans economy may be humming, but absent are some 100,000 people who fled the city when the storm and its aftermath took everything from them. Many of them descend from families whose presence in the town spanned the ages. Nearly all of them are black. Before Katrina, New Orleans had 7,300 public housing units and seven traditional public housing projects.
When the storm hit, it damaged 134,0000 housing units. With the 10th anniversary of the storm, not one of the old projects remains, and the majority of the 5,148 public housing residents displaced by the storm have been unable to return to the neighbourhoods where they once lived. Five thousand families are still waiting for subsidised housing to open up.
This state of affairs is partly due to Katrina and partly due to decisions made years before the storm.
In 1992 a national welfare reform bill, Hope VI, aimed to tear down public housing across the country and replace the units with mixed-income developments. New Orleans got its first taste of the effects of this bill 10 years later, when the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) signed a contract to turn the St. Thomas Projects into the River Gardens development, anchored by the city’s first Walmart.
After that, HANO routinely leased land to private developers, and after the storm hit, plans to convert the city’s remaining projects were catapulted into overdrive. Despite the ambitious timeline laid out in 2006, redevelopment has happened at a glacial pace. As of early 2015, only a small fraction of lost public housing units, 1,925, to be exact, have been incorporated into new developments. As of July 2015, more than 700 public housing units were still in the pipeline
After Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, all 7,500 employees of the New Orleans school system were fired. That led to an unprecedented diaspora of school teachers.
Recent new research suggests that only a small fraction of them continue to teach in the city’s schools today. Tulane University’s Education Research Alliance has been studying teacher demographics. They’ve found that of the 4,600 teachers who taught in the public schools before Katrina, just 20 per cent remain. Some have died. Others never returned to New Orleans. And some struggled to get rehired in the city’s new education landscape.
‘We’ve seen fresh blood in the classroom with new faces,’ says Luis Miron, who directs the Institute for Quality and Equity in Education at Loyola University. He adds: ‘There’s been significant unintended and negative consequences on black educators, especially veteran teachers.’
Basically, it’s harder for them to get a job. As for the impact on students, it’s difficult to quantify. Students may benefit from the new energy and ideas, but they’ve lost teachers who look like them, and come from a similar background. Many of those who opened new charter schools after Katrina were white, young, and not from New Orleans.
The percentage of black teachers dropped from about 71 per cent in 2005 to just under 50 per cent last year, according to Tulane’s new data. Over the years, charter schools have flourished, including some where most teachers are under the age of 35. For veteran teachers, the new charter schools have been a mixed bag: Some have found hope, others only frustration.
Meanwhile, every year, New Orleans schools gain a fresh crop of energetic young teachers. And they lose a little more of the wisdom that comes from decades of experience. The history of New Orleans, the pre-Katrina New Orleans, holds critical pieces of the nation’s history as a whole, and the nation’s culture writ large. But America doesn’t like to see the city that way, and so it was left to drown. In New Orleans, the legacy of slavery and the slave trade is everywhere. There’s nothing subtle about it; it can’t be explained away.
Its historic buildings include those from which enslaved people were auctioned. The voodoo is rooted in the West African culture of the Yoruba people; the rhythms of jazz derived from the individual rhythmic patterns assigned each of the Yoruban deities. The okra in your gumbo is there because of the seeds carried by the abducted through the Middle Passage. They also carried, along with the rhythms of the orisha, the seeds of the blues, the musical form from which nearly all American popular music springs.
Today, New Orleans, it’s said, is on its way up, but the city’s black residents don’t see it that way.
Writing in The Washington Post, Abby Phillips notes that ‘84 per cent of African Americans now in New Orleans lived in the city before the storm, while only 61 percent of whites did.’
While income levels for the black people of New Orleans have barely budged since the storm, white residents saw their incomes jump by 35 per cent. Some 72 per cent of those displaced by the storm are black, while only 14 percent are white. In short, New Orleans, long a majority-black town, is becoming much whiter. With 100,000 of its black residents gone, and the city dependent on the tourist trade, it risks becoming a Disneyesque stage set designed to represent a prettified version of culture that no longer exists, at least not in its fullness.
The redevelopment of New Orleans, on the other hand, birthplace of America’s great classical music – jazz – has been left to the enterprise of real-estate speculators, with no regard for the city’s living cultural history. Among the 100,000 missing are many strands of that history. The saddest part of this tale, however, are the ways in which New Orleans’s story continues to be so very American. It’s the 21st-century version of the same old, same old – private capital reigns supreme, at the expense of all that is humane.
l In a unanimous decision, a federal appeals court has reversed a district court and ruled that the US Department of Labour (DoL) was within its authority to issue a rule change meant to provide home care workers with a minimum wage and overtime protections. The case is now remanded to the district court. In 2013, the Labour Department announced rule changes under the Fair Labour Standards Act (FLSA) that would guarantee that workers who care for the elderly and people with disabilities in their homes would have the same labour protection as other workers.
But US District Judge Richard Leon halted the change saying that the DoL didn’t have the authority to make the rule change. On appeal, the higher court disagreed. US Circuit Judge Sri Srinivasan wrote for the court: ‘The Department’s decision to extend the FLSA’s protections to those employees is grounded in a reasonable interpretation of the statute and is neither arbitrary nor capricious.’
Christine L. Owens, executive director of the National Employment Law Project, said she assumes that the DoL now has the authority to implement the changes: ‘States would be well advised, and employers would be well advised, to take this decision as final and begin acting.’
This workforce, which is 90 per cent female and 50 per cent’ people of colour, hasn’t been eligible for minimum wage or overtime pay since 1974, when they fell under the ‘companionship exemption’ and given the idea that they merely provided company to their clients. So while their average wages come to $9.61 an hour, nearly a third of those surveyed in New York City made less than $15,000 a year and nearly 40 per cent of the entire workforce has to rely on public benefits to get by.
Home care workers are in a huge and rapidly expanding industry. Nearly 2.5 million people are employed in this line of work, making it one of the largest occupations, and the number of jobs is expected to grow 70 per cent by 2020. Even so, demand is expected to outpace supply over the next decade as the country ages, something that could be eased with higher pay and benefits.