01/05 - Poverty | Louisiana Public Square | LPB
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01/05 - Poverty

01/05 - Poverty

Why is poverty so prevalent in Louisiana and what can the state do to improve the lives and economic status of the people?

According to U.S. Census statistics, Louisiana has the third highest percentage of people living in poverty in the United States. Why is this problem so prevalent in Louisiana and what can the state do to improve the lives and economic status of these people? Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, State Labor Secretary John Warner Smith, and Lorna Bourg, Executive Director of Southern Mutual Help Association, Inc., provide some of those answers on this month’s Louisiana Public Square .

LPB President Beth Courtney and former CNN anchor and reporter Charles Zewe are the hosts for the program. This episode is underwritten by Entergy.


All of the following background material comes from the Council for a Better Louisiana [CABL], a long-time partner with LPB on numerous civic activities. CABL is a non-profit organization working in the public interest to focus attention on issues most important to moving Louisiana forward. For more information got to http://www.cabl.org.

The following is excerpted from the CABL web site. Please note that some data have changed since the report was written. See “Poverty Data” below for more recent data.

Poverty: A Part of Our Past that Threatens Our Future

“The conquest of liberty is bound up for us with the conquest of poverty. There is too much poverty in the state of Louisiana.”
Governor Sam H. Jones 1940

Perhaps the most dramatic evidence of our inability to keep up is our chronically high rate of poverty. There is some good news this year in that our poverty rate has declined somewhat, from 19.2% in 1999 to 17.4% in 2000. But where we stand in relationship to the rest of the South and the nation remains unchanged. Stated another way, the poverty rates for Louisiana, the nation and the South are all trending downward, but the gap remains. In 1980, for instance, the poverty rate in the South as a whole was about 36% higher than the national rate. By 2000, the difference had been cut by more than half. Louisiana’s poverty rate, on the other hand, remains as it was 20 years ago at just over 50% above the national average. Our poverty rate is lower than it was, but we’re not catching up. One of the tragic consequences of this is the impact it has on Louisiana’s children. In 2000 more than 23% of the youth in Louisiana lived in poverty. That’s the fourth highest rate in the nation, and more than 40% above the national average.

This is a number that should be moving up, but Louisiana was one of three Southern states that actually saw household income decline over the last year. It fell from $33,218 in 1999 to $30,219 in 2000 – more evidence that we are not closing the gap with the South and the U.S. when it comes to economic prosperity. In 1993, household income in Louisiana was ahead of seven other Southern states. Today we are ahead of one.

Percent of Births to Unmarried Mothers
The economic significance of these statistics is important to Louisiana’s future. If 45% of the births in Louisiana each year are to women who are not married, that means a large percentage of the families in our state face enormous obstacles. Many of these mothers have low educational attainment and low-paying jobs. They also have an increased likelihood of living in poverty and relying on public assistance. Of added concern is that the number of these births is trending slowly, but steadily, upward.

Percent of Citizens Without Health Insurance
Louisiana showed a significant reduction in the percentage of citizens without health care coverage between 1999 and 2000. That’s good news, but this is a statistic that tends to fluctuate frequently. Besides being a health care indicator, it also speaks to the quality of jobs in our state and the vitality of the economy. Many of those without health insurance are employed in low-paying jobs where coverage isn’t offered. With the fifth highest uninsured rate in the nation, Louisiana must clearly work to raise the quality of jobs in our state.

Poverty Rate
Louisiana’s poverty rate dropped by nearly 2% between 1999 and 2000. It remains the second highest in the nation, behind Arkansas which experienced a significant increase over the same period. Year-to-year comparisons don’t always tell the full story, however. Over the last 20 years, Louisiana’s poverty rate has fluctuated considerably, but today it is only 3 points lower than it was in 1980. While the South narrowed the gap with the rest of the country during that time period, Louisiana’s poverty rate remains more than 50% above the national average – virtually unchanged.

Children in Poverty
One unfortunate consequence of our high poverty rate is that it translates into an even higher rate of children in poverty. The number of children in poverty in Louisiana declined between 1999 and 2000, but again the South is showing greater progress. Louisiana’s child poverty rate is 23.3%, while the South has declined to 16.8%, only a few tenths of a percent higher than the national average. In 2000, poverty is defined as an annual income of $17,603 or less for a family of four.

Crime Rate
Generally crime rates have been falling, and Louisiana is no exception. Between 1999 and 2000, the crime rate in Louisiana dropped by 5.6% versus a smaller 3.2% decrease in the South. Unfortunately, our crime rate remains the fourth highest in the nation and the second highest in the South.

Violent Crime
Violent crimes, which include murder, rape, robbery and aggravated assault, are also down. Violent crime in Louisiana decreased by 7.1% compared to a decrease of 3.7% in the South. That moved Louisiana from the third highest violent crime rate in the region to fourth. Nationally, we dropped from sixth highest to seventh. Of continuing concern is that Louisiana’s murder rate remains by far the highest in the nation.


Louisiana Poverty Rate, 2003
17.0% (4th highest in U.S.)
U.S. Census Bureau, March 2004 CPS

Median Household Income, 2003
$34,307 (47th in U.S.) (three year average 2001-2003)
U.S. Census Bureau, March 2004 CPS

Louisiana Children in Poverty, 2003
25.5% (4th highest in U.S.)
U.S. Census Bureau, March 2004 CPS

Percent of Families with children headed by single parent, 2001
36% (highest in the U.S.)
Kids Count, 2004

Percent of Children Born to Single Mothers, 2002
47% (2nd highest in U.S.)
National Vital Statistics Report, 2003

Individuals on Food Stamps, 2003
14.6% of Louisiana’s Population – 655,300 people
Highest ranked percentage in the U.S.
Morgan Quinto Press & U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

Public School Students Receiving Free or Reduced Lunches, 2002
59.1% (2nd highest percentage in the U.S.)
Morgan Quinto Press & U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

Cost of Food Stamp Benefits in Louisiana, 2003
$685.3 million (11th highest amount in U.S.)
Morgan Quinto Press & U.S. Dept. of Agriculture

The following is from the Quality of Life: Poverty section of the CABL web site.

Poverty is pervasive in Louisiana and it does not discriminate, snaring people from every age group and race.

Louisiana ranks fourth highest in the nation and third highest in the south in our overall poverty rate (17.5%) and our rate of children in poverty (26.4%) ranks second highest in the nation and in the south. Yet, these numbers tell a story far beyond one that simply measures individual personal wealth. Our high rate of poverty is the root cause to many of Louisiana’s most pervasive issues – poor education, poor health, high crime rates, etc.

But, the effects of poverty reach beyond those labeled by “statistics.” Poverty in Louisiana is everyone’s concern. We all bear the costs as the state is obligated to directly address the consequences of poverty through numerous education, corrections, and public health programs.

Education is of primary importance if we are going to rid ourselves of poverty. Louisiana’s recent investments in education and the push for early childhood education programs are positive steps that, if sustained, can help reduce poverty in the long term. Yet, the urgent message to our state’s leaders must remain the same – the reduction of poverty must be a top state priority over a sustained period of time. If not, the future we will have will be different from the one we would all hope to create.

Things to Consider:

* Only ten states have a higher percentage than Louisiana of the “working poor” – those who earn less than one-and-a-half times the poverty level.
* Nearly 39% of Louisiana households earn less than $25,000 a year.
* Academic achievement often eludes low-income students, limiting the means by which, as adults, they can leave poverty behind. In 2004, 53% of Louisiana 4th graders and 53% of Louisiana 8th graders scored at or above “basic” on the Math LEAP test and 60% of 4th graders and 47% of 8th graders scored at or above "basic" on the English LEAP test. In addressing this issue, Louisiana spends around $50 million annually on the School Accountability Plan.
* Low-income students are more likely to be taught by inexperienced teachers or by teachers who are teaching out of their fields.
* Today’s rapidly changing economy, one that values critical thinking and flexibility, has little room for the low-skill, labor intensive jobs that have been a staple of Louisiana’s economy in the past. Yet, 22% of Louisianans don’t have a High School diploma and only 21% have at least a Bachelor’s degree. To meet the needs of the new economy, Louisiana spends approximately $300 million annually on job training services and our technical colleges system.
* Infants born to teenagers and to low-income women of all ages are more likely to be of low birthweight, which has been linked to numerous health and developmental problems. Only one other state has a higher rate of low birthweight babies than does Louisiana.
* Poor adults are more likely to have elevated blood levels, to smoke, to be overweight and to live a sedentary lifestyle.
* Over 18% of Louisianans are without health insurance and nearly 12% of Louisiana’s children do not have health insurance. To address the needs of this portion of the population, Louisiana spends $1.1 billion in State General Funds on public health and hospitals. Additionally, Louisiana's total financing budget for Medicaid in FY 04/05 is $5.1 billion.
* There is evidence that those with poor prospects in the job market are more likely to engage in criminal activity than those able to secure positions in the labor market. With a majority of men in the state’s prisons functionally illiterate, Louisiana’s prison population appears to bear this out.

Louisiana has the highest murder rate and state prisoner incarceration rate in the country. The enormous toll of this violence is reflected in part in the public funds spent on crime – nearly $498 million in State General funds alone in FY-04/05.

The following is excerpted from:
“Confronting the Issue of Poverty in Louisiana”
November 2004 CABL Briefing

Where Do We Stand?
How much progress have we seen? Some. In 1996 the poverty rate was a little more than 20% Today it’s 17%. The national average is just under 11%. The state of children is about the same. Since 1996 the poverty rate for young people has dropped from about 30% to slightly more than 25%. Forty percent of the households in the state have incomes of less than $25,000.

Click here to view the online survey results

Click here to view the LSU Before and After Survey Results

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Louisiana Public Square can also be heard on public radio stations WRKF in Baton Rouge; Red River Radio in Shreveport and Alexandria; and WWNO in New Orleans. Check their station websites for schedule.
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