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Building a Better Safety Net for the New New Orleans

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Document date: February 10, 2006
Released online: February 10, 2006

The nonpartisan Urban Institute publishes studies, reports, and books on timely topics worthy of public consideration. The views expressed are those of the authors and should not be attributed to the Urban Institute, its trustees, or its funders.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).

The text below is a portion of the complete document.


Long before the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina or the chaos of evacuation, New Orleans' social infrastructure was failing. News coverage of the overcrowded Superdome and the city's flooded streets exposed the poverty and vulnerability of many residents, especially African Americans. As New Orleans begins to rebuild, can the city avoid the mistakes of the past, instead creating more effective social support for low-income and minority residents? Innovation and experience from other U.S. cities offer promising strategies for reducing the risks of poverty and opening up opportunities for economic security and success. This essay is from an Urban Institute collection that addresses employment, affordable housing, public schools, young children's needs, health care, arts and culture, and vulnerable populations. All these essays assess the challenges facing New Orleans today and for years to come and recommend tested models for making the city's social infrastructure stronger and more equitable than it was before Katrina.

The most vulnerable populations in New Orleans—the elderly, people with physical and mental disabilities, and single mothers out of the labor market—arguably were hit hardest by Katrina. These groups had the highest poverty rates and the fewest assets. Most were African American. Many depended on the social safety net for survival and on others to avoid the storm's catastrophic effects.

Most of these vulnerable residents eventually evacuated the city, and it is unclear how many will return home. Research suggests that they will need the strong kinship networks established pre-Katrina (Hill 1993). But vulnerable populations also require a functioning safety net along with other necessities such as housing and health care discussed in earlier essays. Rebuilding presents New Orleans with a unique opportunity to strengthen its safety net for vulnerable populations that return and for others who will require help in the future.

A "one size fits all" approach will not address the needs of vulnerable populations. The elderly require income support, a safe place to live near other family members, and services to support their independence. Some persons with disabilities will need basic income supports, and others will want opportunities to work in a revitalized city. Single mothers with serious barriers to employment will need temporary basic income support and intensive services to move into the labor market, as well as safe housing, health care, and child care.

Many of the rebuilding proposals discussed in other essays in this collection will help reduce vulnerability in the new New Orleans. Better schools and a stronger job market also should make all New Orleans' citizens more employable, and a more accessible health care system will benefit all low-income populations. But the elderly, people with disabilities, and single parents outside the labor market require other interventions to maximize their independence and limit the risk of poverty.

New Orleans can take advantage of new ideas for building assets among its poorest citizens, facilitating independence among people with disabilities, retooling its welfare system, and reducing out-of-wedlock pregnancy as it rebuilds its social infrastructure. The fiscal capacity of the state of Louisiana ranked 48th out of 51 in the U.S. in 2002 (Yilmax, Hoo, and Nagowski forthcoming) limiting the state's ability to increase direct aid to the poor. But many of the new ideas for reducing vulnerability can be implemented relatively inexpensively by leveraging federal and private dollars, especially if they are built into the planning process now.

Note: This report is available in its entirety in the Portable Document Format (PDF).



Topics/Tags: | Employment | Poverty, Assets and Safety Net | Retirement and Older Americans


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