Political Horizons for Feb. 10, 2013

by mark ballard

Capitol news bureau

Waiting for the Krewe of Carnivale en Rio to roll in Lafayette one recent Saturday night, I fell into conversation, as Louisiana people do to pass the time, with a fellow parade-goer.

This stranger and I talked about how Mardi Gras in smaller towns is more of a family celebration than in New Orleans; that the LSU Tigers’ football season was more disappointing than a 10-3 record would indicate; and that anyone who doesn’t have the pluck to get up off the couch shouldn’t expect Louisiana taxpayers to bail them out of poverty.

Janet Simmons, of Hope Ministries of Baton Rouge, says she too has similar conversations while waiting in line at the bank or the grocery store. But the views so easily espoused in this kind of small talk overlook the complexities of how the poor got in their situation and the impact their poverty has on the middle class. “A majority of the people we serve work, or they want to work, or they work multiple jobs just to make ends meet,” she said. The service group is funded by local churches, individual donations and foundation grants.

Hope Ministries is hosting a Feb. 26 workshop entitled “Understanding the Dynamics of Poverty,” which is designed to help employers, clerics, social workers and others who regularly deal with poor people to understand the causes of poverty; to explain how people struggling daily to survive, view and act in the world. “It may be common sense to you and me, but it may not be to our clients because nobody has taught them,” Simmons said.

But what of studies, like the July 2011 report by The Heritage Foundation, a self-proclaimed conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C., that show an “overwhelming majority of the poor” have air conditioning, cordless phones, cable, microwaves, even coffee makers? That conflicts with the vision of poor for most of the middle class that includes homelessness and soup lines, not color televisions.

Simmons says observations such as those miss the larger point. People in poverty are one bad decision, one car wreck, one illness from a fiscal crisis, she said.

For the middle class, poverty lowers property values, stifles incomes, increases crime, impacts businesses, makes teaching more difficult, and motivates the more-affluent to relocate, Simmons said. “To have the level of poverty we have today is a huge economic disadvantage,” she said.

When Bobby Jindal became Louisiana’s governor in 2008 the political emphasis shifted from task forces, programs and czars to education, health care and workforce training as the focus for helping families to lift themselves out of poverty. In December 2007, Jindal said that by 2011, Louisiana would see the results by comparing numbers, then and now, such as an increase in the number of students graduating high school and an increase in average earnings.

High school graduations have increased from 66 percent in 2007 to 71 percent in 2011, according to the latest numbers available, according to the state Department of Education.

But during that same four-year period, the percentage of Louisiana’s roughly 1 million families living in poverty has increased from 14.6 percent to 16.1 percent, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That translates to 20.4 percent of the state’s 4.5 million residents in the state, up from 18.6 percent, the count shows.

During the same time period, the Census Bureau reports that median family income in Louisiana dropped from $54,890 to $53,601.

Jindal’s aides have, in the past, ridiculed the Census Bureau and pointed to different numbers. The U.S. Census Bureau last week said the American Community Survey Estimates released in December 2012 provide a fair, apples-to-apples comparison between 2007 and 2011.

The success of a “rising tide lifts all boats” strategy should be a part of any discussion legislators have about tax overhaul proposals that could well increase costs for the poor.

Jindal last week did not agree to an interview on the poverty issue. But back in 2007, he said: “The social compact in America is that you should have access to a great education, you should have access to the opportunity to work, so that you can work hard and get ahead. I think that is what society owes us.”

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate’s Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.