By Jan Moller and Kristen Lewis
Louisiana has had a year unlike any other. The Covid-19 virus has killed more than 6,500 Louisianians, sickened hundreds of thousands more and left people jobless and without the basic resources they need to stay afloat. But while the entire state is facing hardship, parishes in northeast Louisiana that were already struggling before the pandemic have a particularly long road to recovery – unless state and federal relief efforts make the area a priority.
Louisiana policy makers looking to effect change should prioritize policies that will close tremendous gaps in opportunity in northeast Louisiana: expanding broadband internet, increasing access to transportation and establishing a statewide minimum wage that’s higher than the federal minimum wage.
Pre-pandemic data shows why such initiatives are a smart place to start. Our new research on Louisiana shows that the 10 parishes with the lowest levels of well-being are all made up of small towns and rural areas, mostly clustered in the northeast. Three of those parishes – Catahoula, Morehouse, and East Carroll – have the shortest life expectancies in the state and all have poverty rates above 20 percent. Nearly three quarters of children in East Carroll Parish live in households below the poverty line – the highest percentage of any parish. In five rural parishes in the northeast more than half the households have no internet access.
The current crisis is making a bad situation much worse – especially for those families that had the least to begin with. With limited access to schools, jobs, internet, or transportation, the northeast is facing a steep climb to recovery, and it’s up to the people in power to help.
Closing the digital divide is a good first step. Reliable broadband internet has been crucial for school and work in the United States for decades, and its importance has only increased during the pandemic. For young people in northeast Louisiana, a lack of access to virtual classrooms is putting them even further behind their peers. Four of the five parishes with the highest statewide rates of youth disconnection – defined as young people aged 16-24 out of work and out of school – were located in the northeast before the pandemic hit. The situation was even worse for young Blackpeople: Nearly half (45.6 percent) of Black youth in the northeast were disconnected, compared to 26.8 percent of white youth. Many who stopped attending class during the lockdown may never return, which will cause Louisiana’s already high rate of youth disconnection to spike and perpetuate a cycle of poverty and hardship.
Encouragingly, Louisiana is slated to receive $600 million in aid from the Federal Communications Commission’s Rural Digital Opportunity Fund over the next 10 years to expand internet service to rural areas. This is a good step toward providing adults and children with virtual resources, but 10 years is far too long to wait. Broadband should be treated as a utility akin to electricity rather than as a luxury item.
As workers return to offices and kids return to classrooms, transportation must be made more accessible. Rural parishes in northeast Louisiana are among those with the highest percentages of households without a car, yet public transportation is severely limited. Adding a few bus lines that take people from their community to the closest city can mean the difference between people having a steady job and struggling to put food on the table.
Beyond just having the resources to show up to work, Louisianans need to be paid higher wages. Louisiana remains one of only five states that has not enacted a statewide minimum wage. Louisiana must enact a statewide minimum wage and abolish its minimum wage preemption law, which prohibits local governments from setting their own minimum wages and disproportionately harms women and people of color.
The pandemic has been a painful reminder of what happens when people don’t have resources to fall back on. Policy makers should take a hard look at the Louisiana they have inherited— the systems and policies that got us here—and work to create change where it is needed most. By providing internet access, transportation, and living wages, policymakers can lift families out of poverty, create more access to opportunity for young people and address Louisiana’s stark racial and ethnic disparities. Recovery efforts must not leave behind those with the fewest resources to get back on their feet.
Jan Moller is director of the Louisiana Budget Project. Kristen Lewis is director of Measure of America, a program of the Social Science Research Council.