We want to focus the Louisiana Illuminator on those who are often overlooked

In a state as poor as ours, poverty deserves more attention

June 23, 2020 9:00 am

Getty Images Aerial photo Downtown Baton Rouge Louisiana USA

There’s never a good time for Louisianians to ignore what’s happening at the Louisiana State Capitol. Whoever the governor is and whoever the lawmakers are, those elected officials are always making decisions that have an impact on residents’ quality of life. Those officials can set healthcare policy that determines whether poor residents can see doctors or get medicine. How they balance environmental concerns with what businesses want determines if the state’s air quality improves or worsens and if coastal erosion accelerates, continues apace or slows down. 

While Louisiana officials are always making decisions that can help or hinder residents’ livelihoods and their wellbeing, their 2020 decisions have added weight. Louisiana continues to suffer from a pandemic that has caused a catastrophic number of deaths and layoffs, and it’s not unreasonable to fear that, like a hurricane season with multiple storms, a second wave of COVID-19 cases may hit us harder than the March-May cases did. People are suffering and dying. Businesses are suffering and dying. Cities and parishes reliant on sales taxes are struggling. Public defenders find themselves even more cash-strapped than usual, because the fees they get from traffic violations have dried up as the number of drivers and tickets has plummeted.

What an awful time for there to be so few eyes on Baton Rouge. Consistent with the trend across the country, the number of Louisiana journalists is dramatically lower than when I signed on with The Times-Picayune in 1997. The Pew Research Center reports that between 2008 and 2019 the number of  reporters, editors, photographers and videographers working in all U.S. newsrooms (newspapers, radio, broadcast and cable television and websites) dropped from 114,000 to 88,000. And 2020 has been especially awful. The New York Times estimated in mid-April that 36,000 journalists had been “laid off, furloughed or had their pay reduced since the arrival of the coronavirus.”

All that means there’s a lot more news than there are journalists to cover it. We at the Louisiana Illuminator aren’t so naive as to believe that we can offset the loss of so many veteran journalists or their institutional knowledge. But we can do our part to give readers clear and carefully reported stories about what’s going on at the State Capitol and what they stand to gain or lose.

We also intend to be an indispensable source of commentary about Louisiana politics and policy. I’ll be writing much of that commentary, but readers will find opinions from others here, too, especially those who want to use the levers of state policy to alleviate suffering in their communities.

My intent is to use this space to give special attention to Louisianians who are poor, marginalized, overlooked or disregarded. And not just overlooked or disregarded by state officials but just as often overlooked by journalists, too.

The Rev. William Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign — A National Call for Moral Revival. (Photo by Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

With 18.6 percent of its residents and 26 percent of its children living below the poverty threshold in 2018, Louisiana ranked third worst in poverty and child poverty. But as the Rev. William Barber said in a January 2019 address at Tulane University, the official poverty numbers are hardly informative. Barber, co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, estimated that half of Louisiana’s 4.7 million residents were struggling financially. But, he said, “I bet you haven’t had a person run for office talk about the poor.”

Candidates and politicians might not talk about the poor or about other groups of people who’ve been historically excluded or oppressed, but we will. This is a space where their concerns aren’t an afterthought but will be given the prominence they deserve.

A scan of 40 years of poverty data shows the state’s percentage of people below the poverty line consistently hovering around 20 percent. That’s shameful. We at the Illuminator are here to shine a light on the policies that contribute to Louisiana’s constant designation as one of the country’s poorest states.

We can do better, Louisiana. We must.

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Jarvis DeBerry
Jarvis DeBerry

Jarvis DeBerry, former editor of the Louisiana Illuminator, spent 22 years at The Times-Picayune (and later as a crime and courts reporter, an editorial writer, columnist and deputy opinions editor. He was on the team of Times-Picayune journalists awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service after that team’s coverage of Hurricane Katrina and the deadly flood that followed. In addition to the shared Pulitzer, DeBerry has won awards from the Louisiana Bar Association for best trial coverage and awards from the New Orleans Press Club, the Louisiana/ Mississippi Associated Press and the National Association of Black Journalists for his columns. A collection of his Times-Picayune columns, “I Feel to Believe” was published by the University of New Orleans Press in September 2020.