The low salaries certainly make it tough on families. But there are societal costs as well. Low paid service industry workers often have little choice but to rely on government subsidies for housing and food. That’s right: after working 40 hours per week or more, many of New Orleans’ service industry workers have so little cash on hand that they have to rely on public housing or food stamps to make ends meet.
Some argue that when government fails to require companies to pay a livable wage and as a result government has to provide basic necessities like food and housing, government is essentially subsidizing corporate profits. New Orleans’ economy certainly supports this theory. Some advocates have long suggested that public housing developments like Iberville and Lafitte, only blocks from the French Quarter, wind up being corporate giveaways, providing housing for service industry employees so that French Quarter businesses do not have to pay higher wages.
Most thriving American cities share a key component…a thriving middle class. Unfortunately, New Orleans’ middle class has been in a nosedive for more than two decades. From 1990 to 2010, New Orleans lost almost 110,000 jobs. The combination of the mass relocation of oil companies from New Orleans to Houston, the downsizing of the NASA space shuttle booster construction facility and the exodus of upwardly-mobile residents in the wake of Katrina has made it difficult to sustain, much less grow, New Orleans’ middle class.
In 2009, the city had 93,500 job opportunities for low skilled employees but only 30,900 for high skill employees. New Orleans’ 2010 poverty poverty rate of 27 percent was nearly twice the national average.
For now, this great American city has to make due. And while tourism and Mardi Gras will not and cannot be the answer, perhaps they provide evidence that New Orleans can grow its economic base. Events like the Super Bowl, Sugar Bowl and Mardi Gras give investors a chance to see what we’re capable of. Erecting stages, fine tuning sound systems, providing hotel accommodations for tens of thousands of visitors and cooking tons of delicious gumbo and jambalaya all require serious hard work.
Perhaps in the near future, we can match the effort required to pull off the purple, green and gold citywide indulgence that is Mardi Gras with an effort to grow new industries and expand New Orleans’ middle class. We can let le bon temps roulez, but let us be sure to make the growth of our middle class a strong runner up.
Happy Mardi Gras.
James Perry is a civil rights advocate and political analyst. Follow him on Twitter at @JamesHPerry.