I spent last weekend enjoying the food and music of New Orleans. Ironically, while my hometown metro of DC battened down for Hurricane Irene, New Orleans marked the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.
Immediately after the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the levees, many argued that the region's rebuilding should address the poverty, inequality, and distress that the storm and chaotic evacuation so vividly exposed. Consolidating our own research and experience, Urban Institute analysts offered a package of suggestions for rebuilding New Orleans’ social infrastructure. We concluded:
Hurricane Katrina vividly exposed the exclusion, isolation, and distress of low-income African Americans, many of whom have called New Orleans home for generations. Unfortunately, it would be all too easy for these residents to be excluded and isolated again as the city rebuilds. But New Orleans' future could be more just and equitable.... Billions of dollars are pouring into the city's reconstruction. If these resources are used strategically -- rebuilding the social infrastructure along with the physical infrastructure —New Orleans can be reborn as a city of openness and opportunity for all its residents.
Many New Orleans residents (old and new) shared this aspiration and have worked hard over the last six years to realize it. Although my NOLA visit was for pleasure, not work, I couldn't help but ask how it’s going.
The latest data, assembled by the Greater New Orleans Data Center, show encouraging gains in economic opportunity, civic activism, and the quality of public services, especially schools. And casual visitors can easily spend a weekend in New Orleans without seeing a trace of Katrina's devastation.
But severe inequality, poverty, and distress persist. Although incomes among whites in the New Orleans metro area now exceed the average for whites nationally, the opposite is true for the region's blacks and Hispanics. Rising rents have intensified hardship among low—and moderate—income families. And in neighborhoods only a short drive from the French Quarter, boarded windows, collapsing structures, and vacant lots still outnumber homes restored and reoccupied.
The same frustration with the stubborn persistence of poverty and racial inequality echoes through recent essays —by Cornel West and Eugene Robinson, for example—on Martin Luther King’s legacy. (Hurricane Irene postponed the dedication of the new MLK memorial on the national mall). Despite huge gains in civil rights, the fundamental injustices of joblessness, poverty, and segregation that King fought still blight our communities and dim the possibilities for our future.