Median income drops
“Last year our dining room had a record year with more than 223,000 hot meals served, and right now we are already ahead of that by more than 10 percent.” Michael Acaldo, chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Society of St. Vincent de Paul
There were more Louisiana residents living in poverty in 2011 than the year before, growing from 18.7 percent of the state’s population in 2010 to 20.4 percent in 2011, according to recent U.S. Census Bureau data.
That increase means 83,231 more Louisiana residents were living in poverty last year than in 2010.
Of the people living in poverty, 28.8 percent of those Louisiana residents in 2011 were under the age of 18, up from 27.3 percent in 2010, according to the data included in the Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey.
Only two other states had a higher percentage of the population living in poverty in 2011, New Mexico at 21.5 percent and Mississippi at 22.6 percent, well above the 15.9 percent of people nationwide living in poverty.
The same data show that the median household income, or midpoint income, in Louisiana declined from $43,804 in 2010 to $41,734 in 2011, a decrease of 4.7 percent.
Despite the decline in income and increase in poverty, Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration continues to tout the state’s prowess when it comes to job growth and economic development.
“Over the last four years, poverty in the U.S. has grown more than twice as fast as poverty in Louisiana with 22 percent growth in the U.S. versus 10 percent growth in Louisiana. That is a direct result of Louisiana’s relative economic performance, as Louisiana is one of only a few states in the U.S. with more jobs today than in January 2008,” State Department Economic Development Director Stephen Moret said in an email response to The Advocate.
Moret wrote that unemployment has declined in Louisiana over the past few years and Louisiana’s job growth was the seventh fastest in the United States over the last 12 months through August.
Moret said although the job growth alone cannot drastically reduce poverty, the most important tool the state can use to address the problem is “to cultivate as many good jobs as possible.”
When asked to explain how high poverty and expansive job growth can coexist, Moret said the national economy is a factor.
“One of the factors negatively impacting our poverty levels is that some employees are not able to get the same number of hours as they had a few years ago when the national economy was in better shape. While they may still be employed, they often aren’t getting the overtime hours that they used to get, which obviously negatively impacts household income,” Moret wrote.
Additionally, Moret wrote, good jobs in Louisiana and in the nation increasingly require some kind of post-secondary education.
“And compared to other states, we still have too many people who either haven’t graduated from high school or who elect not to pursue additional education beyond high school,” he wrote. “In some cases, there is a mismatch between available jobs in Louisiana, such as software programmers, marine electronics, chemists, welders and engineers and the skill sets of the out-of-work population.”
Troy Blanchard, an LSU demographer and sociology professor, said the poverty trend in Louisiana is difficult to pinpoint because of the state’s declining unemployment.
However, the data shows some employment increases in areas such as arts, entertainment, recreation, social assistance and food services, employment categories with, in some cases, lower paying jobs.
Mayor-President Kip Holden agrees with Moret about adding employment opportunities while training the workforce to fill those jobs.
The census data shows that 20 percent of the East Baton Rouge Parish population was living in poverty in 2011, compared to 17 percent in 2010.
“I think the (parish numbers) reflect layoffs and cut backs in higher education and the state government side,” Holden said Friday afternoon.
Holden said relying on traditional forms of the economy, such as oil and gas, should be supplemented with trying to diversify the economy.
Holden also said the state and the parish have to continue to find ways to keep students in high school through graduation and train them for the workforce.
Michael Acaldo, chief executive officer of the Baton Rouge Society of St. Vincent de Paul, said the Catholic charity organization sees poverty up close daily in the community.
“Last year our dining room had a record year with more than 223,000 hot meals served, and right now we are already ahead of that by more than 10 percent,” Acaldo said.
Acaldo said the group’s homeless shelters are always full.
“People are leaning on us harder than in past years,” Acaldo said.
The recent poverty data was also no surprise to Ann Williamson, director of the Louisiana Association of Nonprofit Organizations, or LANO.
“Unfortunately, this (poverty) is a trend going in a negative direction. Our member organizations have seen an increase in demand for services,” Williamson said.
Williamson said poverty won’t be solved by government alone or the nonprofit sector.
“Those are just elements needed in solving the problem. This is something where everyone has to come together for the solution,” Williamson said.