A Portrait of Louisiana: Study shines light on post-Katrina racial, economic disparities

A new study uses post-Katrina data to examine the wide and stark disparities in the life expectancy, educational attainment, and incomes of African Americans and whites in Louisiana. The report reveals that Louisiana, which ranks 49th among U.S. states on the American Human Development Index, has a population that experiences health, education, and income levels that the rest of the country surpassed three to five decades ago.

"A Portrait of Louisiana: Louisiana Human Development Report 2009," is the first-ever assessment that examines disparities by parish, race, and gender in Louisiana, and calls for action and policy change to address the acute human vulnerability that persists today. The report also underscores that while the state's pronounced social and economic gaps left African Americans particularly vulnerable during Hurricane Katrina and in its aftermath, those  widespread vulnerabilities remain in place today.

As the report's authors point out at the Huffington Post:
Although improved disaster preparedness makes a replay of the worst aspects of Katrina unlikely, were a similar storm to hit the Gulf coast today, African Americans would again disproportionately lack the resources - from good health to sturdy housing to a financial cushion - to weather the crisis. People whose heads are barely above water in good times have little to draw on in an emergency.
Some findings from the report:
  • Women in Louisiana live longer than men and have higher educational levels, yet earn an average of $13,000 less.
  • The average life span for African Americans in Louisiana today (72.2 years) is shorter than that of many developing nations, including Colombians, Vietnamese and Venezuela.
  • The average life span of an African American in New Orleans is 69.3 years, nearly as low as life expectancy in North Korea, while the life expectancy for a white person is 79.6 years.
  • Whites in Louisiana earning the least have wages and salaries on par with African Americans earning the most.
  • The median earnings for whites range from $25,000 to $37,000. For African Americans, earnings range from $13,000 to $25,000.
  • The 6.6 % unemployment rate in Louisiana is well below the national average of 9.4 %.
  • African American women have wages and salaries typical of those that prevailed in the U.S. in the 1950s (Louisiana).
  • An African-American baby boy born today in Louisiana can expect to live 68.1 years, a life span shorter than that of the average American in 1960 and on par with that of men in Azerbaijan, Egypt and Jamaica today.
  • In education, racial disparities in Louisiana are significant. Nearly one in three African American adults age 25 and over in Louisiana has not graduated from high school.
What can address these disparities? The report notes that "recovery funds coupled with stimulus monies are providing unprecedented levels of resources that, if invested in building people's capabilities, can serve to expand the choices and opportunities of current and future generations of Louisianans." But according to the report's authors, these recovery funds must be directed in a way that targets the most vulnerable.

As the report explains:
Evidence from disaster recovery around the world suggests that the rebuilding phase often results in a further concentration of power and resources in the hands of elites. Through this research, we have calculated that federal hurricane recovery dollars directed to Louisiana thus far amount to nearly $15,000 for each and every man, woman, and child in the state. Ensuring that recovery benefits everyone requires that Louisiana state and local officials set concrete targets and provide easily understood reports to the general public on the use of recovery dollars. Equally critical is that the people of Louisiana and Mississippi raise their voices to demand accountability.
The report also calls for concerted action in the policy realm, including around health care, a timely call as the national debate hearts up around health care reform. In particular the report notes that efforts must be made to address the health of African American men, who suffer premature deaths, often from preventable causes. It's a call many grassroots advocates are voicing as they call for health care reform. In fact, in Louisiana Wednesday a coalition of organizations rallied outside of Senator Mary Landrieu's office to call on her to support the public option in health care reform.

The Louisiana report follows "A Portrait of Mississippi," also produced by the American Human Development Project, a nonprofitestablished to analyze human development in the United States drawingon an internationally-recognized framework established by the UnitedNations Human Development Report.