A REGION REDEFINED PART III: Poverty shifts to suburbs

Joyce Blanchard has spent the last year in and out of hospitals. Doctors found she’s diabetic, but nearly all of her $730 monthly disability check goes to pay her light bill and house note. So she can’t afford the needles or test strips she needs to test her blood sugar daily. Sometimes, she skips meals.

“I really struggle,” said Blanchard, 60, a lifelong Marrero resident who for many years managed a Superdome suite and waitressed at Tally-Ho, a now-closed French Quarter breakfast joint.

Twice a month, Blanchard and many of her neighbors take a bus or drive past blocks of modest houses with tidy yards before turning into the parking lot at the Marrero Community Center, one of the busiest food pantries in Jefferson Parish.

Across the parish, the number of those seeking help has skyrocketed. In the past year, the parish’s Community Action Program has had to more than double distribution at its seven food pantries.

People say that without the big box of food, topped with a dozen fresh eggs, they’d go hungry.

“I’m barely making it,” said Helen McIntyre, 56.

It’s a picture of hardship that clashes with long-held perceptions of idyllic suburban life and seems especially surprising when so many once-gritty inner-city neighborhoods are getting spruced up.

“People ask, ‘How can this happen? What about the economic boom we’re all so thrilled about?’ ” said Natalie Jayroe, head of the Second Harvest Food Bank of New Orleans and Acadiana, which supplies pantries in 23 Louisiana parishes.

The geography of poverty has been changing incrementally in the New Orleans metro area for at least 20 years. And it’s not just here.

Several years ago, as they pored over data about social issues facing metropolitan areas, Brookings Institution researcher Elizabeth Kneebone and her colleague Alan Berube saw a trend that surprised them: more poor people “living outside big cities than within them.”

The challenge now is ensuring that policies and services are “aligned to this new geography,” said Kneebone, who has since immersed herself in research about the often-fragmented systems that guide the delivery of philanthropy, social services, medical care, mass transit and education.

A decade ago, a slim majority of the New Orleans area’s poor population — 55 percent — still lived in the city itself. Today, the ratio has flipped. A slightly greater majority of the area’s poor people — roughly 59 percent — call the suburbs home. Jefferson Parish now has one-third of the area’s poor people — still fewer than New Orleans, but not by much.

The shift accelerated after Hurricane Katrina, as the city lost some of its most impoverished residents in what the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center has called “the largest population displacement since the Dust Bowl.” Kneebone found the share of poor people living in New Orleans suburbs rose at almost twice the national average between 2000 and 2012.

“The shift of poverty toward the suburbs was already under way before Hurricane Katrina,” Kneebone said. “But the displacement caused by the storm helped fuel the rapid pace of that shift.”

Roots of a crisis

New Orleans still has a substantially higher proportion of poor people — 29 percent — than its six suburban parishes, where an average of 16 percent live in poverty. The percentage of city residents who live below the poverty line isn’t much different than before Katrina. But the actual number of poor people in New Orleans dropped by 23 percent over the past decade.

The most recent U.S. Census data tell that story. From 2000 to 2010, the fastest-growing city neighborhood was the Warehouse District, where lofts and condominiums set above restaurants and coffee shops cater to well-off young professionals and “empty nesters,” older parents with grown children.

At the other end of the spectrum, a census tract in the Florida neighborhood lost the most population over the decade, according to an analysis of 2010 data by the local consulting firm GCR & Associates. That Upper 9th Ward area had only six residents in 2010, a drop of nearly 1,600 from 2000, when the Florida public housing development, whose residents were some of the poorest in the city, was full.

In a comparison of 2004 and 2011 data, the GNOCDC found that the city now has roughly 20,000 fewer poor people than it did immediately before the storm.

But the high poverty rate in places like Marrero is not a function of a mass exodus of poor New Orleanians. Pat Tolliver, head of the Marrero Community Center, estimates that, at most, 20 percent of her clients came from the city seeking more affordable housing or jobs, which have also been shifting to the suburbs.

Rather, most of the people Tolliver sees are longtime Marrero residents who, like many other suburbanites across the country, have seen their incomes fall because of declines in manufacturing and construction, two industries often concentrated in the suburbs.

The community’s spike in poverty may also result from the departure of some higher-income residents, according to a Jefferson Parish analysis of IRS migration data, which showed that households moving into the parish in 2006 and 2007 had lower incomes than those who moved away.

The biggest underlying issue is that wages can’t meet costs, said Second Harvest leader Jayroe. While some needy households are temporarily seeking help after a sudden health crisis or a layoff, a growing number are working-class families who tell Jayroe, “I used to be able to make my dollars stretch.” Those families’ wages may never again cover the costs of living, given steep post-Katrina rises in insurance, groceries and rent, she said.

Kneebone found that suburban jobs pay no better, on average, than those in New Orleans, which is dominated by the low-wage tourism industry. Nearly 25 percent of all metro-area jobs paid less than $1,250 a month, the equivalent of a full-time worker paid minimum wage. Overall, 24 percent of jobs in New Orleans paid that basement wage, while 25 percent of suburban jobs did.

Residents interviewed at the community center said their rents have nearly doubled since Katrina and their utility bills have also risen sharply. Data gathered by the GNOCDC show lesser, but still substantial, increases.

“Everything has gone up: food, non-food bills,” said Janice Martin, 27, who works as a babysitter. “A lot of people say that they work just to pay bills.”

The lowest-income people just can’t keep up, Tolliver said: “They face a crisis all the time.”

Until recently, Katasha Jones, 41, was living well above the poverty line, with a full-time social-services job and benefits. Then her hours were cut. Now she’s going without health insurance, and her elderly mother had to step in to replace the childcare she had to drop. She moved her family to a smaller apartment, one that she could pay for with child support. When her mechanic called to give her an estimate on her stalled car, she told him she couldn’t afford to fix it.

Recently, Jones opted not to send a New Orleans “care package” to her eldest son, who’s eating bland food in Iowa, where he attends college on a scholarship. Even a year ago, she wouldn’t have thought twice about it. But now, the postage seemed too steep.

“Every time I look up, costs are higher,” she said.

Blue-collar history

Marrero was founded in 1914 by Louis Marrero, a Civil War veteran who helped to upgrade Barataria Road from a plantation road to a state highway in 1920, and who later served as sheriff of Jefferson Parish. In the 1930s and ’40s, Acadian trappers and fishermen moved to Marrero to work on the Harvey Canal or at Avondale Shipyard, said Russell Blanchard, who has relatives in Marrero and is working on a film about the Americanization of Cajun people. Even today, census reports for Marrero show that 20 percent claim French ancestry.

Across America, the move to the suburbs began in earnest after World War II, as soldiers bought houses in the suburbs through the G.I. Bill. But the fast growth in Marrero didn’t come until the next decade, said West Bank native and demographer Greg Rigamer. In the initial postwar years, forests and farms still dominated the area. But in 1957, the West Bank Expressway opened, and the following year, the state cut the ribbon on the Greater New Orleans Bridge, now called the Crescent City Connection.

Marrero’s growth continued until the 1980s, as the oil and gas industry expanded, then went bust, said Rigamer, who was recently hired by Jefferson Parish to help officials understand the root causes of the parish’s rising poverty rate.

“When the West Bank was in its heyday, it had a very significant labor force. And they were high-paying, middle-class jobs. You could earn a decent living,” Rigamer said.

Workers from the shipyard and canal settled down in newly built houses in Marrero, he said. “Marrero was traditionally a blue-collar community, built for the middle class,” he said.

National studies have shown that working-class enclaves like Marrero are susceptible to becoming pockets of poverty as better-off residents abandon their homes and move elsewhere.

Sharon Wegner, director of the parish’s Department of Workforce Connection, said that some Avondale workers have already moved elsewhere to work in other shipbuilding yards, like in Pascagoula, Miss. Her staff has, so far, helped about 200 people from Avondale become re-employed locally, though in some cases, the laid-off workers make less money than they did before.

In some specialties, ship-painting for instance, there aren’t many job openings, so a number of those workers are now attending truck-driving school.

“We constantly need drivers,” Wegner said. “If you go to school and get a (commercial driver’s) license, you will get a job.”

The other high-demand jobs that fall within her office’s required pay scale — $10 an hour or more — are in retail, truck driving, construction skills, welding and pipefitting.

Because of its blue-collar roots, Marrero has a high rate of people with only a high school diploma, many of whom likely went straight from high school to jobs at nearby employers that paid decent wages. While only 8 percent of Marrero residents have a college degree, most residents — about two-thirds — own their homes. But many residents have seen their incomes slide because of layoffs, old age, ill health and rising costs.

There are very few written chronicles about Marrero, which can make it difficult to trace the roots of its poor population, which grew steadily from 15 percent of its population in 1979 to 27 percent today.

Geographer Richard Campanella notes that half of Marrero’s housing stock, mostly modest suburban homes, was built rapidly, between 1960 and 1979. Areas like Marrero, “comprised mostly of post-World War II tract housing without a visually distinctive building stock, tend to get overlooked in the literature and visual representation of the metropolis,” he said.

But behind the visually bland housing, suburban regions such as Marrero often have far higher rates of native residents and strong cultural traits than can be found in more celebrated city neighborhoods, Campanella said. “How often do you hear a genuine New Orleans accent in the French Quarter or Faubourg Marigny?” he asked. “You hear it all the time in Marrero.”

Aid is scant

During the summer, Katherine Gobert, 71, who retired from Avondale Shipyard, can pay her utility bills if she runs her air conditioning only at night and steams up her kitchen only once a week, cooking all her food for the week. “The other days I use only the microwave. Otherwise my house gets too hot and I have to switch on the AC. I’ve found I can’t afford that,” she said.

Those who needed help with paying their light bills only got five months of help this year in Jefferson. The federal assistance money arrived in February and was gone by July because bills were higher and the money went faster, parish officials said.

One of the challenges of suburban poverty is that services and policies still skew toward central cities. Few philanthropic and federal poverty-assistance dollars are dedicated to the suburbs, said Kneebone, who has studied the balkanized systems that provide workforce assistance, social services, education, healthcare and mass transit.

Catholic Charities served fewer people in Marrero in 2011 or 2012 than in 2010, not because of need, but because of resources, spokeswoman Anna Toujas said. And its on-the-ground partner in Jefferson Parish, the Society of St. Vincent de Paul, has seen increased need, but has been able to help far fewer people with the same amount of money. That’s because utility bills and rent payments are now so much higher, said Karen Kirchgraber, district president for the charity.

“People used to ask for $100 toward rent,” she said. “Now they need $500 or $600.”

Marrero has a high home ownership rate, but many homeowners are struggling these days. Take Blanchard. Rotten boards are falling off the back and side of the house that she’s owned for 20 years. One area has gotten so decrepit she can see daylight: She finally stuffed a towel into the hole to block the outside air.

Blanchard is in good company in Marrero, where many other neighbors also seem to have skipped on maintenance. While Marrero makes up only 7 percent of Jefferson Parish households, it racked up 17 percent of the code violations, according to the parish’s code-enforcement office.

The Jefferson Parish Housing Rehab Program for owner-occupied properties took 219 applications in one month last year, but had enough money to fix only 30 homes, said Detrich Hebert, director of the Department of Community Development.

Louis Schneider, a director at the nonprofit Neighborhood Housing Services in New Orleans, said his agency has identified a metrowide need for repair assistance, especially for elderly people who are “aging in place.” But while his agency has designed a program and is entering names into its database whenever people call, the program still remains unfunded.

Meanwhile, it’s hard for many of Schneider’s would-be clients to reach him.

If Blanchard wanted to visit his office in New Orleans, she would have to hop on a Jefferson Express Transit bus and pay one fare that would get her to the city. Then she’d have to pay another fee for the New Orleans bus, run by the Regional Transit Authority. There are no transfers across the two systems.

JET Director Ryan Brown said he’d like to see a more regional approach, adding that he meets with the RTA regularly. But because they’re two separate entities, allowing transfers between the lines would mean “everyone would lose money,” he said.

Stretching dollars

Josie Coleman retired recently after working 37 years as a surgical nursing assistant at West Jefferson Medical Center. A native of Mississippi, Coleman, 65, moved to Marrero 50 years ago, when it was still mostly woods and the West Bank Expressway had just two lanes. She raised her three children there.

Every night after work, she took her children to the park, where she volunteered at the concession stand while the children played ball.

Coleman prides herself on paying bills on time. But after Katrina, she began feeling overwhelmed.

“After the second week of the month, I wouldn’t have nothing,” she said. “So I’d go without.”

In late 2005, she signed up for a Section 8 voucher through the Jefferson Parish Housing Authority to help pay her rent. She was No. 3,100 on the list, she said. This fall, her number finally came up.

“Now I can keep up,” she said.

But that doesn’t mean she can sit still. Coleman volunteers five days a week at the Marrero Community Center, where she sees many of the kids who bought popcorn and cold drinks from her decades ago. Though she never asks, they often tell her what brought them to the center: layoffs, sickness, mounting bills.

Each time, Coleman hugs them and ends the conversation the same way. “I know it’s hard, baby,” she says.