Thursday, February 16, 2006


Tonight I attended a panel on the working poor in New Orleans since Katrina at Loyola University. Some of the panelists included Wade Radke, New Orleans born founder of ACORN and an organizer for Local 100 hospitality workers; Dr. Mark Rank, a professor of sociology at Washingotn Universit author of One Nation Underprivileged; Professor Bill Quigley , a law shcool professor at Loyola University and a noted local activist and Jarvis De Berry, an editorial wrier for the NewOrleans Times-Picayune; and Alan Baroski of theBrookings Institute, author of a report on poverty awareness, Katrina’s Window.

Katrina’s Window is available for reading at

Also during the panel, Bill Quigley mentioned the Agenda for Children’s Self Suffiency Sandaard for Louisiana which is a way of measuring actual poverty by asking what a family actually needs to be self-sufficient.
That report is available here:

Important points that were made about the working poor. Because of the politics in this country we tend to look at poverty as an individual matter. We don’t ask about the structural causes of poverty. Dr. Rank compared it to a game of musical chairs. Let’s say tehre are 9 players and only 7 chairs. Two people are going to lose. In the current approach to poverty, people focus on the 2 that lose and say, why did they lose, what’ wrong with them, etc. But in a structural approach, we ask, why aren’t there more chairs?

A few interesting points came up. The working poor in the city would closely correlate to bus ridership. (Over 25% of people pre-Karina in New Orleans did not have access to a car. Currently ridership is at about 9% of its previous level which might indicate a rtehr large shortfall of working poor. One panelist pointed out that while New Orleans has a reasonably good bus system, it has no interface with surrounding parishes. It’s hard to ride a bus to a job in neighboring Jefferson Parish. This is a good example of a structural problem that would help the working poor have more opportunities.
The biggest structural problem today is clearly the lack of housing for the working poor. Rents have gone up substantially. It’s already a fact that in most cities in America 2 people working at a minimum wage cannot afford a two bedroom apartment.

The other structural problem pre-Katrina was the disastrously bad public school system. Radke of ACORN observed that people get the schools that their local businesses demand and that in New Orleans, the demand has been for people to change sheets or wait tables, jobs that don’t require education. In effect the schools have been successful in turning out workers to be exploited. The elite schools (like Ben Frnaklin High School) produce students who will leave the city and never return.

Bill Quigley characterized the response to the storm as a self-help evacuation because people were expected o get themselves out of town.He characterizes the rebuilding of the city as a self help rebuild. 60% of the city were renters and nothing is being done to bring them back. Older people are returning because in many cases their actual greatest asset is their home. Howeer younger peole with families cannot return; there is not only a shortage of working poor but also middle class. There are not enough schools for children (only 18 public schools are open) and not enough housing for either class.

Who has returned? The people are probably older, generally, something I’ve also observed.

In the discussion, someone asked, why is it that the Republicans (like Bush and locally his friend Joe Canizaro of the Bring Back New Orleans Commission) are talking about planning whereas the Democrats on the city council are talking about self sufficiency and every person for himself?

Radke answered that he believed the developers (like Canizaro and Pres Kabacoff) were seeking land essentially. He gave an exaple of a neighborhood of slab homes near Gentilly that would be costly for individuals to rebuild because each of them would have to raise their homes and the costs are prohibitive (AS an aside he mentioned a study of slab homes in New Orleans East that were investigated by the Earth Institute; 8 out of 10 they looked at would be impossible to raise up.)

However, once the landowners were made whole and abandoned he neighborhood, a developer could easily move in, bulldoze the homes, add fill and build up the land to much higher height and redevelop to a more upscale neighborhood. Radke believes this accounts for the confusion about what’s going on. He beileves the neighborhoods that will survive are those where substantial numbers of people return and make it impossible for developers to move in en masse.

According to the Brookings site:

Overall, nearly 50,000 poor New Orleanians lived in neighborhoods where the poverty rate exceeded
40 percent. New Orleans ranked second among the nation’s 50 largest cities on the degree to which its poor
families, mostly African American, were clustered in extremely poor neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth
Ward. In these places, the average household earned barely more than $20,000 annually, only one in twelve
adults held a college degree, four in five children were raised in single-parent families, and four in ten working-
age adults—many of them disabled—were not connected to the labor force.
A new Brookings analysis confirms the disparate effect
that the city’s flooding had on poor, minority households.
The flooded area of New Orleans contained 80 percent
of the city’s minority population, versus 54 percent of its
white population. The average household income there
lagged that in the city’s higher ground by more than
Certainly, Hurricane Katrina’s lopsided impact on these
populations reflects failures at the federal, state, and local
levels to mount an adequate response to the impending
natural disaster. Yet it also highlights the effects of
an even more insidious, long-standing policy of neglect
towards the city’s most vulnerable residents, exemplified
by their continued segregation into neighborhoods of
high poverty.
In these neighborhoods—places like New Orleans’ Lower
Ninth Ward—families are cut off from quality educational,
housing, and employment opportunities. Unsafe local
environments debilitate residents mentally and physically.
That so many people from neighborhoods like
these in New Orleans had no friends or relatives to turn
to for shelter or financial assistance when disaster struck
demonstrates that their location can isolate them socially,
as well as geographically. In short, extremely poor
neighborhoods serve to limit the life chances and quality
of life for poor families that live in their midst, above
and beyond the barriers imposed by their own personal
Unfortunately, New Orleans is hardly the only place in
America where concentrated urban poverty persists.
Despite positive trends in the 1990s, almost every major
American city still contains neighborhoods that mirror
the Lower Ninth Ward demographically and economically.
These places did not arise solely as the result of individuals’
choices about where to live. Their existence reflects
a complicated mix of politics and policies that over the
past several decades have reinforced the concentration of
racial and ethnic poverty in central cities.


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Vanessa said...

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Right now, there is a class action lawsuit being filed by the Advancement Project against federal and state officials regarding displaced residents. These scattered people cannot return to their homes because these public housing projects are going to be demolished and replaced by mixed-income residences.

Would like to recommend a few interesting articles regarding this debate that's been raging:

The Public Housing Struggle in New Orleans: A Tale of Two Sisters

A class action directory that has a good history of this case

A debate against the class action lawsuit

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Rodger Kamenetz is an award-winning poet and author. He wrote the landmark international bestseller The Jew in the Lotus and the National Jewish Book Award-winning Stalking Elijah. His five books of poetry include The Lowercase Jew --he has been called “the most formidable of the Jewish-American poets”. His memoir, Terra Infirma, has been described as “the most beautiful book ever written about a mother and son.”

            His 2007 book, The History of Last Night's Dream, was featured on Oprah Winfrey's Soul Series. Kamenetz takes us on an historical tour of dreaming from Genesis to now, and shows how dreams have been misinterpreted. He then shows how dreams can be used today to reveal the truth of the soul.

In 2010 came Burnt Books: Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav and Franz Kafka, a dual biography published by Schocken and Nextbook Press.

  Rodger lives in New Orleans where he divides his time between working with dream clients and writing poetry. He is married to fiction writer Moira Crone  and is the father of Anya Kamenetz (author of Generation Debt) and Kezia Kamenetz.


Rodger Kamenetz is Professor Emeritus at Louisiana State  University where he was the Sternberg Honors Professor and LSU Distinguished Professor. He held a dual appointment as a Professor in the Department of English and in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies. He is the founding director of LSU's highly successful MFA program in Creative Writing, and the founding director of the Jewish Studies Program. His students have gone on to successful writing careers, among them poets Martha Serpas, Virgil Suarez, Mark Yakich and Anthony Kelman and fiction writers Olympia Vernon, Ronlyn Domingue, Laurie Lynn Drummond,and Connie Porter. He holds a B.A. from Yale College and graduate degrees from Johns Hopkins and Stanford Universities.