Report: Poverty high in Baton Rouge

The Baton Rouge metro area ranked No. 11 in “concentrated poverty” among the nation’s 100 largest metro areas from 2005 to 2009, according to a new study released Thursday by the Brookings Institution.

The city of Baton Rouge, meanwhile, ranked No. 5 out of the primary cities located in those same metro areas and time period.

The report also reflected that the concentrated poverty rate in the Baton Rouge metro area increased by 13.5 percent from 2000 to the 2005-2009 study period and that the increase for the city of Baton Rouge was 22 percent.

The 13.5 percent increase caused the Baton Rouge metro area to rank No. 4 in rate of change out of the 100 largest metro areas.

The poverty statistics for the city and the metro area were part of the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program’s report, “The Re-Emergence of Concentrated Poverty: Metropolitan Trends in the 2000.”

The report measures the concentrated poverty rate — defined as the share of poor people living in extremely poor neighborhoods. An extremely poor neighborhood is a Census tract with a poverty rate of 40 percent or higher.

“Unfortunately it’s a list you want to be on the bottom of, not the top,” said Michael J. Acaldo, chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Society of St. Vincent de Paul.

Census data in the report came from the decennial censuses in 1990 and 2000 and the American Community Survey’s five-year estimates for 2005-2009.

“People who live in extremely-poor areas shoulder a double burden,” said Elizabeth Kneebone, a Brookings senior research associate and lead author of the report.

“Not only do they struggle with their own poverty, but their surrounding communities have fewer job opportunities, lower-performing schools, higher crime rates, and more public health problems. Being poor in a very poor neighborhood makes it that much harder to get out of poverty,” Kneebone said.

When asked about the increases in poverty for Baton Rouge and the metro area, Kneebone said two possible events could have been contributors.

“The post-Katrina migration from New Orleans could have contributed to that growth, as could changes in the economy more generally, after two economic downturns in the last decade,” Kneebone said.”

Neither Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden nor his aide, Scott Dyer, responded to an email request to comment on the poverty data.

Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, said he agrees with Kneebone that the period of time captured in the report is the same time displaced residents from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 caused a surge in population in Baton Rouge, and many of those who were displaced were low-income residents.

The problem of concentrated poverty in parts of Baton Rouge, however, has been a problem for years, Knapp said.

“We’ve known that the Baton Rouge area has had significant challenges historically with poverty in certain areas,” Knapp said.

He said the report should be “a call to action” for those who have already started to address poverty in three main areas: education and workforce training, transportation and job opportunities.

Knapp said state reforms in 2008 that changed how money is allocated for workforce training is already trying to make sure people are trained for jobs.

Knapp said although the growth has been very slow, school districts in the metro area have shown some growth in test scores.

Knapp said Baton Rouge is one of the few cities among the top 100 that doesn’t have a dedicated funding stream for mass transit and if that doesn’t change, poverty will remain a problem.

“We have job opportunities. But if people can’t get to the opportunities, there might as well not be opportunities,” Knapp said.

Knapp said BRAC has been working with the city-parish and other groups to address the transit problem with putting together a dedicated tax of some sort to go to voters in the future.

Parish School Superintendent John Dilworth said the numbers do not surprise him.

“I looked at a lot of data about children in Louisiana before I came here so the poverty numbers here are not surprising,” Dilworth said.

He said Louisiana ranked 49th in the country in the 2011 Kids Count report which looks at well-being issues such as children born prematurely and children living in poverty.

Dilworth said poverty is a community problem, not a school district problem.

Dilworth said, however, there is a correlation between poverty and students who are discipline problems for example, and the district has attempted to address that issue with seven discipline centers.

“But seven centers in a district this size is a lot,” Dilworth said.

Dilworth said one of the main missions of a school district — providing a high-quality early learning education so students won’t fall behind in first-grade — is a strong tool to combat poverty.

Dilworth said another way the district is proactive in addressing poverty is redirecting parents who didn’t finish school to the system’s G.E.D. program and the district’s other adult education programs.

Acaldo said he sees poverty in Baton Rouge close-up on a daily basis and says the number of daily meals St. Vincent de Paul serve in its dining room “do not lie.”

Acaldo said that his group started to serve just more than 100,000 meals in 2001 and the number of meals served in 2010 was 218,688, Acaldo said.

“So in less than a decade we more than doubled the number of meals we serve,” Acaldo said.

He also said the St. Vincent de Paul shelters have been at capacity, the pharmacy has been busier than ever and more people are seeking items at the group’s thrift stores than at any other time in history.