When Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Mississippi and Louisiana four years ago, extreme weather and acute human vulnerability met head-on with tragic results. Long-standing gaps in the well-being of different groups of Gulf coast residents were suddenly everywhere in evidence - on rooftops, on I-10 overpasses, and on TV screens across the country. Many were stunned by what they saw. They should not have been. The problems of social exclusion, residential segregation, and human poverty that Katrina brought to light hide in plain sight in every U.S. state.
A new study titled A Portrait of Louisiana released yesterday in Baton Rouge and supported by Oxfam America and the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, uses post-Katrina data to examine disparities by parish, race, and gender in Louisiana, and shows that pronounced social and economic gaps left African Americans particularly vulnerable during the disaster and in its aftermath. 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.
In 2008, we produced a first-ever American Human Development Report. Using a people-centered methodology developed at the United Nations and used to assess progress in over 160 countries, we created a ranked list of U.S. states in terms of human well-being. The human development index measures health, education, and income - the basic building blocks of a good life - using official U.S. government data. This work represents the only available calculation of life expectancy by congressional district and county. On the index, Mississippi ranked last, and Louisiana was third from the bottom.
But averages can hide a lot. A Portrait of Louisiana reveals a distribution of vulnerability and resilience in the region striking in its variation and closely tied to race and place. This follows A Portrait of Mississippi, also produced by the American Human Development Report and launched earlier this year. Though both Mississippi and Louisiana rank poorly on the national list, some groups within these states enjoy some of the highest levels of well-being in the nation. Others experience health, education, and income levels that the rest of the country surpassed thirty, forty, even fifty years ago.
White Louisianans living in the New Orleans neighborhoods of Uptown, Carrollton, Central City, and the Garden District have a score on our index (6.91) that bests the top-ranked U.S. state of Connecticut (6.37). (The highest score is 10, the lowest, 0.) At the other end of the spectrum, African Americans living in rural Tangipahoa Parish have a score of 0.98, the human development level of the aver age American in the early 1950s. New Orleans whites in these neighborhoods can expect to live, on average, an astonishing ten years longer, are nine times less likely to have dropped out of high school, and earn two and a half times more than Tangipahoa African Americans.
In terms of health, in Mississippi, white women live three years longer, on aver age, than African American women; for men, that gap is four and a half years. An African American baby boy born in Louisiana today can expect to live, on average, to 68.1 years, a life span equal to that of the average American male in 1974 (and shorter than that of males in Iran, Nicaragua, Philippines, and other developing countries today).
In both states, whites earn bachelor's degrees at twice the rate of African Americans and are nearly half as likely to have dropped out of high school. Higher levels of education typically lead to higher incomes; our research shows that if all adults in these two states had at the very least a high school degree, median personal earnings would increase by $1,700 per year.
When it comes to income, whites earning the least have wages and salaries on par with those of African Americans earning the most. White men in Louisiana have earnings more than $8,000 per year higher than those of the typical American worker today, and white men in Mississippi surpass the national median by over $6,000. African American women, on the other hand, have wages and salaries typical of those that prevailed in the U.S. in the 1960s (Mississippi) and the 1950s (Louisiana). For men and women together, there is virtually no overlap between white and African American earnings in both states.
Building resilience requires investing in people. Since 2005, the Gulf states affected by Katrina have received upward of $140 billion in federal dollars for hurricane re covery. According to the Louisiana Recovery Authority, and including recent federal stimulus bill funding, at least $63.3 billion has been allocated to Louisiana. This sum represents roughly $15,000 for each and every woman, man, and child in the state--about $44,000 for the average, three-person Louisiana family.
Recovery funds must be directed not just to rebuild the physical infrastructure of Mississippi and Louisiana, but also to construct a new infrastructure of opportunity to serve the next generation of Gulf coast residents. Recovery offers a unique opportunity to empower people with the tools to lead self-sufficient lives of freedom, choice, and value and the capabilities required to meet life's disasters with resilience rather than vulnerability.
But this won't happen automatically. 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. Ensuring that recovery benefits everyone requires that Gulf state governments 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.
Follow Sarah Burd-Sharps on Twitter: www.twitter.com/MOA_org