We’re the face of poverty – This is the tale of our two Baton Rouges.
Metropolitan Baton Rouge has a tragic and alarming poverty problem.
Residing in the place we call home is one of the highest concentrations of poor people in America, ranking us fifth among the nation’s 100 largest cities, according to an analysis of census data by the Brookings Institution. We have replaced New Orleans as the city with the highest concentration of poor people in Louisiana, having seen our concentrated poverty rate soar by roughly 22% over the past decade, the eighth fastest-growing rate among the nation’s largest cities.
We are the face of poverty in Louisiana.
This, of course, will come as an absolute shock to you. That’s because readers of this publication tend to be business executives, tend to be in an upper-middle-income bracket or higher, tend to be white and tend to live in faux French Country homes, many along Highland Road and almost all well south of Florida Boulevard.
We, in the white community, have fared pretty well during the nation’s economic downturn, which is why the Baton Rouge Area Chamber can tout all those fabulous stats about how prosperous the region has been while other cities have suffered.
Tell that, however, to the black community, living largely in high-poverty neighborhoods squeezed between Florida Boulevard and the cities of Baker and Zachary. The part of “we” in the black community—the people white Baton Rouge acknowledges only when talking about the crime rate, lamenting our poor public schools or complaining about taxes—has not fared so well.
The white community sprawls in every direction; the black community, too poor to sprawl, stays in place, living in houses that are hardly French or country—just faux.
This is the tale of our two Baton Rouges. This is the tale of our sorrowful concentration of poverty.
It’s a problem easy for many of us to ignore, especially since most of us venture north of Florida only when driving to the airport.
Yet it’s a problem that if ignored much longer will eventually stymie the very economic growth that allows white Baton Rouge to ignore the plight of black Baton Rouge. We already see the seeds of our possible decline each time a company announces it won’t locate here because of our high crime, poor schools or lack of an employable workforce.
Reversing the poverty problem isn’t easy and it certainly won’t be fast. If Baton Rouge seriously wants to address the most significant challenge to its future, then we’d better get ready for a 20-plus-year commitment and a radical change in our philosophy.
This city and state spend billions of dollars each year simply mitigating poverty. It’s time to spend those billions on bold initiatives designed to actually get people out of poverty.
These impoverished neighborhoods need 1) job training facilities, offering childcare and job placement services, 2) better health care options, 3) stores with healthy food choices, 4) a completely new, and unique, approach to public education, and 5) financial institutions willing to fund economic development projects and provide access to capital for black entrepreneurs. Equally important, all of Baton Rouge needs to confront the racism that prompts far too many educated black residents to flee to other cities. We need to tear down the walls of distrust between white Baton Rouge and black Baton Rouge.
It won’t be easy and it won’t be inexpensive.
Tackling the problems of the poor hardly seems fathomable at a time when the middle class is frustrated—and becoming angry—over the decline of its net worth and economic spending power. Salaries, if not frozen, are failing to keep pace with inflation. Home values, if not declining, are stagnant. Those with jobs fret about losing them. Today’s middle class is drifting closer to being poor than being rich. It’s a middle class that, for the first time since World War II, believes it will not do economically better than its parents.
Poverty, however, is not confined to urban Baton Rouge. The suburban concentrated poverty rate in metro Baton Rouge grew 7% over the past decade, the fifth fastest-growing rate among the top 100 cities.
In many cities across America, the middle class is directing its anger at the top 1%. Here, in Baton Rouge, the venom is aimed in the opposite direction. Our angst is directed at those living north of Florida Boulevard, not those behind the gates along Highland Road.
Complaining about which people pay taxes and which people those tax dollars serve might make one feel good, but it ignores the underlying problem. If your goal is to get serious about reversing poverty and expanding opportunity, then you need to get a much different complaint.