Half New Orleans Poor Permanently Displaced: Failure or Success?

Government reports confirm that half of the working  poor, elderly and disabled who lived in New Orleans  before 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%  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 loss of 62,038 since Katrina).  Medicaid is down  dramatically in every category: by 50% for the aged,  53% for blind, 48% for the disabled and 52% for  children.


The Social Security Administration documents that fewer  than half the elderly are back.  New Orleans was home  to 37,805 retired workers who received Social Security  before Katrina, now there are 18,940 – a 50% reduction.   Before Katrina, there were 12,870 disabled workers  receiving Social Security Disability in New Orleans,  now there are 5350 – 59% less.  Before there were 9425  widowers in New Orleans receiving Social Security  survivor’s benefits, now there are less than half,  4140.


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%  reduction.


Public transit numbers are down 75% 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 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  of 2005 to 22,768 in January 2008.   Welfare numbers  are also down.  The Louisiana Families Independence  Temporary Assistance Program was down from 5764  recipients (mostly children) in July 2005 to 1412 in  the latest report.


While there are no precise figures on the racial  breakdown of the poor and working people 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.  The areas which 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 U.S.  Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is  demolishing thousands of intact public housing  apartments. HUD is spending nearly a billion dollars  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 2 in 5 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 four to five hundred needy people a  month.  "Most of the people we see are working people  facing eviction, 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, homelessness is likely to get  a lot worse.


United Nations officials recently called for an  immediate halt to the demolitions 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 demolitions 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, the elderly and the 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 state-wide 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 U.S. 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  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. 

Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and law professor  at Loyola University College of Law in New Orleans.  He  can be reached at [email protected]  Interested  persons can contact Hope House through Don Everard at  [email protected] 

Leave a comment