Louisiana's High Poverty Rate Persists

Sep 21, 2012

The latest American Community Survey from the US Census Bureau was released Thursday. The stats reveal the percentage of individuals in Louisiana living in poverty rose from 18.7 percent to 20.1 percent between 2010 and 2011.

WRKF's Ashley Westerman spoke with LSU Economist Jim Richardson to try and make sense of the numbers.

WESTERMAN: Is that a significant change?

RICHARDSON: No, it's not shocking. I'd expect that number to go up a little bit, go down a little bit, it's going to move around because the world's not static. But obviously if you're one of the people falling into that category now, yes, for you it is significant. I think relative to the US average, that's high, that's very high and we want to be much lower. But that's not the issue in terms of the change. We've been above the national average for a long time. That is the issue to be concerned about.

WESTERMAN: And, you know, even though there hasn't been a dramatic change over the last year 20 percent is still one in five. Do policymakers have a role in addressing that issue?

RICHARDSON: Well, let's look at it from the perspective of at the national level. In the 1960s, the federal government declared that they were going to do something about poverty and they then said, "Okay, what can we do about it?" And what they have discovered is that it is very easy to talk about but very hard to solve.

For example, here in our state we go up to the delta area, which is incredibly poor and it's been poor forever. And there have been discussions on how to fix it and how to fix it, but that's all. We've never fixed it. And I think this is true for a lot of the other issues within trying to help poverty. We've talked about how to do it but we've not really found that magic wand that says, "Okay, we'll take care of poverty."

I think the other element that we need to think about is when you define that poverty line that you're talking about, the 20 percent, you have to appreciate that does not include most public assistance payments. So if a family does get food stamps because they are poor that may list them above that poverty line but yet they are still counted below it because you're not looking at the public assistance programs they may get. They're there to provide a little bit of relief to people who are having a bad time and, in that sense, they serve that purpose. Food stamps will not cure poverty, in terms of helping people get out of it by themselves. Food stamps can only allow people a chance to have a little more spending power than they otherwise would have.

WESTERMAN: In 2014, as you may know, Louisiana will have the opportunity to extend Medicaid coverage to low-income adults as part of the federal healthcare reform. But Gov. Bobby Jindal has made it very clear he doesn't want to do that. How do the policies of an anti-big government governor like Jindal affect those living in poverty?

RICHARDSON: Well, I think you have to then discuss the overall policy and it's just not this one program necessarily, though one could talk about if it's a good idea or a bad idea to reject the federal program and, indeed, we could change our minds on that as well. I think that, then the issue is: Do we have any programs in place? Do we have any particular policies in place that will assist people in getting out or getting up above that poverty level? That becomes a real issue. If we don't want to have assistance programs to kind of help in alleviate or mitigate the poverty, how do we help them get out of it in terms of becoming a more productive, a contributing member of society? I think that's the question and right now, I'm not sure there is a program that we have besides our educational programs. Obviously they've not worked entirely. How do we get people out of poverty? And I don't think we've found the magic wand on that at all.