When President Obama visits New Orleans today to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, he will find the city whiter, wealthier, and more unequal than it was before the storm.
Eight years ago, then senator and presidential candidate Barack Obama visited New Orleans, two years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, and promised to prioritize rebuilding the city’s health care infrastructure and overhaul its school system. President Obama will celebrate some degree of success in fulfilling those promises, but the problems that piled tragedy upon tragedy in New Orleans — before, during and after the storm — have persisted and worsened in the 10 years since the hurricane.
Before Katrina, African Americans made up a significant percentage of the city’s poor population. These most vulnerable residents suffered the worst harm from the storm. Many of the city’s poor and Black residents were unable to evacuate. Black and low-income neighborhoods, many of which were in low-lying areas of the city, were more severely damaged. Many of those neighborhoods, like the Lower Ninth Ward, are blighted by block after block of damaged homes abandoned by their owners.
The poverty rate among black New Orleans residents is higher than it was in 2005. In Orleans Parish, four out of 10 residents are white, but only about three in 10 of the poor are white. Today, 39 percent of children in New Orleans live in poverty — 17 points higher than the national average. Eighty-two percent of them live in households where at least one person is employed, so this disparity is primarily caused by low wages.
As the city gentrifies and neighborhoods change to reflect and serve the interests of the city’s new young, white and affluent residents, rents have increased and many longtime residents are priced out of their neighborhoods. In a city where 55 percent of residents are renters, rent for a one-bedroom apartment increased by 33 percent, and two-bedroom apartments increased by 41 percent. Today, 37 percent of renters spend more than 50 percent of their income on rent.
In the 10 years since Katrina, black household income has plummeted, virtually wiping out New Orleans’ black middle class. The median income for white families is $60,553; that’s $35,451 more than the median income for black families, which is $25,102. Since 2005, the median income for white families increased by 22 percent, compared to just 7 percent for black families.
Blacks were a majority of New Orleans poor before Katrina, but were also a majority of the middle class. Today, blacks are still a majority of the city’s poor, but the middle and affluent classes are increasingly white. Many middle-class African-Americans who returned to the city are retiring, or nearing the end of their careers. Meanwhile, younger African-American professionals have long since fled the city in search of opportunities elsewhere.
New Orleans’ black middle class was further decimated by the decision to ultimately fire 7,500 teachers and education paraprofessionals. As Dillard University sociologist Beverly Wright said, “When you fire all of the New Orleans public school teachers and its personnel, you’ve given a big whack to the middle class,” because “teachers were a treasured possession of the middle-class black community.”
The dismissal of 7,500 teachers and other public school personnel was part of the massive post-storm “school reform” efforts that converted most of the city’s public schools to charter schools. However, the shift to charter schools has not raised standards or test scores. There is growing evidence that school reforms have come at the expense of poor and disadvantaged children, who often disappear from school or are “counseled out” and disappear from educational data.
Today, New Orleans is still a majority black city, but getting whiter, younger and more affluent. African Americans are 59 percent of the city’s population, but that’s down from 66 percent in 2005. About 71,000 fewer people live in New Orleans than before Katrina. There are 99,650 fewer African Americans living in the city, compared to 11,000 fewer whites. Fifty-six percent of the city's newest residents are white. Many are young, well-educated, and drawn to the city’s thriving tech start-up sector.
Blacks accounted for 73 percent of people displaced by the storm, more than one-third estimated to have been poor. In the first year after the storm, 175,000 blacks left New Orleans, and more than 75,000 never returned. Fewer than half of black residents were able to get back into their homes within a year, compared with 70 percent of whites.
Government policy played a role in driving the shift in New Orleans' population. The Louisiana Road Home program, which granted federal money to residents whose home were damaged by Katrina and Rita, maxed out rebuilding money at a home’s pre-Katrina value, which meant more money for wealthier homeowners. Civil rights activists and homeowners filed suit, and a settlement allowed homeowners to apply for additional funds. The damage, however, was done. Wealthier neighborhoods like Broadmoor have been largely rebuilt, while black and poor areas like the Lower Ninth Ward are still blighted by block after block of damaged, abandoned homes.
When President Obama arrives in New Orleans today, he will face a reckoning with his promises to help rebuild and restore the city. New Orleans may be in better shape for some people than it was at the time Katrina hit. But there have been policy decisions – particularly by Louisiana's hard-right conservative Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Republican-controlled legislature – that have made the city less diverse and more unequal. The city’s poor and black populations still await their recovery.