‘All disasters increase inequity’: A year after the pandemic hit the U.S., the poor are even poorer

In Louisiana: low unemployment assistance, lots of hunger

By: and - February 1, 2021 7:30 am

A long line of cars turned into the parking lot of Goodwill Industries of Southeast Louisiana in New Orleans Wednesday morning, Aug. 5. The motorists were picking up free food from a community food pantry. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry / Louisiana Illuminator)

Coinciding with the Jan. 21 anniversary of the novel coronavirus’ appearance on U.S. soil, the National Conference on Citizenship,  a nonprofit chartered by the U.S. Congress to gather data to address and propose solutions to public problems, released its latest installment of Pandemic to Prosperity, a series of reports that illustrate how vulnerable communities — including those in the American South — have been faring.

The report doesn’t paint a pretty picture:

  • 1 in 10 adults across the U.S. has reported going hungry, but in Louisiana, 1 in 5 adults reported being hungry. Louisiana distributed more than $674 million in emergency food assistance because of the compounding effect of the pandemic and the record-breaking five hurricanes that struck in 2020.
  • Employment rates nationwide reached a new low point in December (a month when jobs usually increase), dipping below even that of the Great Recession. Only 57% of adults were employed and only 54% of Black adults. Across the South, the pandemic erased an estimated 1.3 million jobs, which helped lead to those increased reports of hunger.
  • Unemployment benefits are not enough to cover basic living expenses in any Southern state except Kentucky, where the standard monthly unemployment payout is $400 higher than the next highest Southern state. 

Allison Plyer, chief demographer at the Data Center, a nonprofit in New Orleans that analyzes data in Southeastern Louisiana, is part of the team that wrote Pandemic to Prosperity. In a Friday phone interview she said, “I think there’s a couple important dynamics to understand about disasters. One is that they accelerate pre-existing trends. And the trends that were underway across the nation, and certainly in Louisiana, were elimination of jobs in a lot of more mature industries, like tourism, like oil and gas.” She cited as an example the replacement of hotel desk clerks by kiosks.

Disasters, Plyer said, have a way of speeding up those kinds of changes because, in an attempt to save money,  businesses struggling to survive will often replace human labor with technology.

“And what that means is demand for tourism perhaps rebounds, [but] the jobs will not rebound at the same level,” she said. “So we as a country and certainly as a state have to think about: Where are there going to be new growth opportunities and new employment opportunities? And for a lot of the country and Louisiana in particular, investing in people and their skills is going to be very important.” 

With oil prices dropping, Louisiana needs to reconsider an economy that’s been so reliant on oil and gas prices, Plyer said. “How can we invest in industries in the future? What will be the investments coming out of the Biden administration that Louisiana can look to? I think we’re very likely to see new programs around clean energy. The future is here and disaster accelerates us into the future. Those voices that fight for the past will hold us back.”

During a pandemic that has put so many people out of work, Louisiana hasn’t been of much help for residents struggling to pay their bills.  During Louisiana’s first special session in June, Rep. Ted James (D-Baton Rouge) cited statistics that show that the maximum amount of unemployment benefits the state provides is the third-lowest in the country.  In July, Jan Moller, executive director of the Louisiana Budget Project, said Louisiana’s “average weekly benefit of $216 is the lowest in the country when measured as a percentage of the median wage.”

Two months after the state’s rental assistance program ran out of money, just $115,000 of the $5.6 million meant for New Orleans had been dispersed. Cashauna Hill, executive director of The Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center, said last month that the state’s previous rental assistance programs required renters to jump through too many bureaucratic hoops, she said, which is unreasonable to expect for renters with potential eviction looming over their heads.

Plyer made a similar point Friday. She said every relief program FEMA has administered in recent years has done a better job helping better-off applicants. Those programs are “very focused on rooting out fraud,” she said,  which makes complying with the paperwork requirements “arduous” for many deserving and qualified applicants.  “If you’re a single mom who’s couch surfing after a disaster, you’re going to have a harder time providing all the paperwork that FEMA requires — or even a nonprofit or HUD (requires) — to help rebuild…than the married couple with one person who’s not working and who has plenty of time to pursue those programs and all that paperwork.” she said. “All disasters increase inequity.”

To the extent that there’s been an economic recovery, she said, that, too, has benefited those who who were already doing better.  “It’s a very K-shaped recovery,” Plyer said. “People who are more upper income may have lost some income during the pandemic, but are pretty much right where they were. Whereas that’s not the case for lower income folks.”

She said one misconception that persists is that the economy would snap back to 100 percent if the government were to lift all COVID-19 restrictions. “People are changing their buying behaviors because of the virus itself, regardless of restrictions,” Plyer said. For example, she said, air travel is down by more than 60 percent from last year even though there were no federal restrictions on  how many people could fly. 

People who blame the restrictions and not the virus also seem oblivious to what might happen to the economy if there were no restrictions, Plyer said.  “If we lift all restrictions and more people die, I don’t know if anyone’s quantified what that does to our economy — but it’s probably not good.”


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Wesley Muller
Wesley Muller

Wes Muller traces his journalism roots back to 1997 when, at age 13, he built and launched a hyper-local news website for his New Orleans neighborhood. In the years since then, he has freelanced for the Times-Picayune in New Orleans and worked on staff at the Sun Herald in Biloxi, WAFB-9News CBS in Baton Rouge, and the Enterprise-Journal in McComb, Mississippi. He also taught English as an adjunct instructor at Baton Rouge Community College. Among his recognitions are McClatchy's National President's Award, the Associated Press Freedom of Information Award, and the Daniel M. Phillips Freedom of Information Award from the Mississippi Press Association. Muller is an alumnus of Jesuit High School and the University of New Orleans and is a veteran U.S. Army paratrooper. He lives in Louisiana with his wife and two sons.

JC Canicosa
JC Canicosa

JC Canicosa is a former Louisiana Illuminator reporter. Prior to working with the Illuminator, Canicosa worked for Investigate-TV and The Loyola Maroon. Canicosa earned a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Loyola University New Orleans. At Loyola, he was the senior staff writer at The Maroon and the president of the school's chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. Off the clock, Canicosa enjoys playing basketball, watching movies and dabbling in comedy writing.