Half New Orleans Poor Permanently Displaced: Failure or Success?

Government reports confirm that half of the working poor, elderly and disabled who lived in New Orleans before Katrina have not returned. Because of critical shortages in low cost housing, few now expect tens of thousands of poor and working people to ever be able to return home.

The Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals (DHH) reports Medicaid, medical assistance for aged, blind, disabled and low-wage working families, is down 46% from pre-Katrina levels. DHH reports before Katrina there were 134,249 people in New Orleans on Medicaid. February 2008 reports show participation down to 72,211 (a loss of 62,038 since Katrina). Medicaid is down dramatically in every category: by 50% for the aged, 53% for blind, 48% for the disabled and 52% for children.

The Social Security Administration documents that fewer than half the elderly are back. New Orleans was home to 37,805 retired workers who received Social Security before Katrina, now there are 18,940 — a 50% reduction. Before Katrina, there were 12,870 disabled workers receiving Social Security Disability in New Orleans, now there are 5350 — 59% less. Before there were 9425 widowers in New Orleans receiving Social Security survivor’s benefits, now there are less than half, 4140.

Children of working class families have not returned. Public school enrollment in New Orleans was 66,372 before Katrina. Latest figures are 32,149 — a 52% reduction.

Public transit numbers are down 75% since Katrina. Prior to Katrina there were frequently over 3 million rides per month. In January 2008, there were 732,000 rides. The Regional Transit Authority says the reduction reflects that New Orleans has far fewer poorer, transit dependent residents.

Figures from the Louisiana Department of Social Services show the number of families receiving food stamps in New Orleans has dropped from 46,551 in June of 2005 to 22,768 in January 2008. Welfare numbers are also down. The Louisiana Families Independence Temporary Assistance Program was down from 5764 recipients (mostly children) in July 2005 to 1412 in the latest report.

While there are no precise figures on the racial breakdown of the poor and working people still displaced, indications strongly suggest they are overwhelmingly African American. The black population of New Orleans has plummeted by 57 percent, while white population fell 36 percent, according to census data. The areas which are fully recovering are more affluent and predominately white. New Orleans, which was 67 percent black before Katrina, is estimated to be no higher than 58 percent black now.

The reduction in poor and low-wage workers in New Orleans is no surprise to social workers. Don Everard, director of social service agency Hope House, says New Orleans is a much tougher town for poor people than before Katrina. “Housing costs a lot more and there is much less of it,” says Everard. “The job market is also very unstable. The rise in wages after Katrina has mostly fallen backwards and people are not getting enough hours of work on a regular basis.”

The displacement of tens of thousands of people is now expected to be permanent because there is both a current shortage of affordable housing and no plan to create affordable rental housing for tens of thousands of the displaced.

In the most blatant sign of government action to reduce the numbers of poor people in New Orleans, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) is demolishing thousands of intact public housing apartments. HUD is spending nearly a billion dollars with questionable developers to end up with much less affordable housing. Right after Katrina, HUD Secretary Alphonso Jackson predicted New Orleans was “not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again.” He then worked to make that prediction true.

According to Policy Link, a national research institute, the crisis in affordable housing means barely 2 in 5 renters in Louisiana can return to affordable homes. In New Orleans, all the funds currently approved by HUD and other government agencies (not spent, only approved) for housing for low-income renters will only rebuild one-third of the pre-Katrina affordable rental housing stock.

Hope House sees four to five hundred needy people a month. “Most of the people we see are working people facing eviction, utility cutoffs, or they are already homeless” reports Everard. The New Orleans homeless population has already doubled from pre-Katrina numbers to approximately 12,000 people.

Everard noted that because of FEMA’s recent announcement that it was closing 35,000 still occupied trailers across the gulf, homelessness is likely to get a lot worse.

United Nations officials recently called for an immediate halt to the demolitions of public housing in New Orleans saying demolition is a violation of human rights and will force predominately black residents into homelessness. “The spiraling costs of private housing and rental units, and in particular the demolition of public housing, puts these communities in further distress, increasing poverty and homelessness,” said a joint statement by UN experts in housing and minority issues. “We therefore call on the Federal Government and State and local authorities to immediately halt the demolitions of public housing in New Orleans.” Similar calls have been made by Senators Clinton and Obama. Despite these calls, the demolitions continue.

The rebuilding has gone as many planned. Right after Katrina, one wealthy businessman told the Wall Street Journal, “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically.” Elected officials, from national officials like President Bush and HUD Secretary Jackson to local city council members, who are presumably sleeping in their own beds, apparently concur. Policies put in place so far do not appear overly concerned about the tens of thousands of working poor, the elderly and the disabled who are not able to come home.

The political implications of a dramatic reduction in poor and working mostly African American people in New Orleans are straightforward. The reduction directly helps Republicans who have fought for years to reduce the impact of the overwhelmingly Democratic New Orleans on state-wide politics in Louisiana. In the jargon of political experts, Louisiana, before Katrina, was a “pink state.” The state went for Clinton twice and then for Bush twice, with U.S. Senators from each party. The forced relocation of hundreds of thousands, mostly lower income and African-American, could alter the balance between the two major parties in Louisiana and the opportunities for black elected officials in New Orleans.

Given the political and governmental officials and policies in place now, one of the major casualties of Katrina will be the permanent displacement of tens of thousands of African Americans, the working poor, their children, the elderly, and the disabled.

Those who wanted a different New Orleans rebuilt probably see the concentrated displacement as a success. However, if the test of a society is how it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members, the aftermath of Katrina earns all of us a failing grade.

Bill teaches law at Loyola University New Orleans. He can be reached at Quigley@loyno.edu Read other articles by Bill.

7 comments on this article so far ...

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  1. Brian said on March 4th, 2008 at 6:58am #

    Just so all know, Bill Quigley is very much against the will of the citizens of New Orleans and fails to note how dilapidated and murder ridden the projects were before they were destroyed. He also fails to note that there are over 500 units of section 9 housing that have gone unclaimed here in the city. Also, I invite Ole’ Bill to consider that housing does not equate jobs. The poverty in New Orleans was crushing because our city lacked business and opportunity for many. Just having people live in a town without the economics to support them creates more poverty. Bill Quigley is a human rights lawyer and he is a lawyer without a cause. Reviled by 90% of the population of New Orleans – black and white. He obviously knows nothing of economics or business and takes a simpletons view of the past and what the future can be. Trapping people in poverty is his “Humaine” solution.

  2. Eric Patton said on March 4th, 2008 at 12:01pm #

    Why do I have this funny feeling Brian is white?

  3. Bill said on March 4th, 2008 at 4:03pm #

    Economy failing?, Check; Buzz about illegal immigration? Check…. Environment of constant fear and bigotry for anybody not straight or white enough? Check…..Christians chomping at the bit in anticipation of their apocalypse? Check….Rail stations set up across the country with “holding areas?”


    Opportunity for current psycho in chief to create new “911” type scenario where he can declare Marshall law and suspend elections? DOUBLE CHECK…..

    I really fear that the powers that be, who have been infected by their divisive politics for so long are now poised to round up ANYBODY not white, straight, christian or “American” enough to cleanse the country once and for all.

    If it comes to pass…….America is over.

    One way to help fix the problem……….stop watching fox news….

    GodDESS help us all…

  4. Evie said on March 5th, 2008 at 10:54am #

    According to Quiqley’s stats NO has lost 9% of it’s Black population. Very possibly many are as those evacuees my town took in after Katrina. My daughter is ED of an NGO that works in small town TN with housing/jobs for minorities (we’re Black BTW).

    Her group was asked to take Katrina victims, which they did, and offered housing/jobs to 6 families. Nice 3 bedroom brick ranch style homes, slated for our local minorities, but given to Katrina families. They have jobs similar to what they had in NOLA – nurses aides, delivery driver, cook, hotel housekeeping, etc. All have settled permanently in our community with no desire to return to NO, and feel they have it better than they did in New Orleans pre-Katrina. I also know of similar situations in Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas.

    Could be many of those not returning simply do not want to return.

  5. rosemarie jackowski said on March 5th, 2008 at 4:55pm #

    Sadly, there are many who hold the same world view as Brian. All over the U$A there are homeless and hungry people. Some of the “haves” just want to have more and more and feel no compassion. It is happening in my little town. The one homeless shelter in the area is always filled to capacity and turning people away – at the same time many in the town deny that there are any homeless or people in need here. Lack of empathy is a pathology that has infected our culture.

    I know Bill Quigley and he is one of the heroes of our time!

  6. Hank said on March 10th, 2008 at 3:39pm #

    As noted in other comments, many NO evacuees wound up in cities (like mine) with better economies and less crime than NO had before Katrina. They might want to return to NO, but they are making a better living where they are, so they don’t return. So at least some evacuees are better off.

  7. Dissident Voice : Nasty Double Standards on Man-made Catastrophes and Crimes against Humanity said on May 19th, 2008 at 5:05am #

    […] starvation and imminent death,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 24-30 January 2008. #Bill Quigley, “Half New Orleans Poor Permanently Displaced: Failure or Success?” Dissident Voice, 4 March 2008. #Julian Borger and Duncan Campbell, “Why did help take so long […]