Mardis Gras
NEW ORLEANS - FEBRUARY 06: An African-American waiter looks out a restaurant window as revelers party in the street during Mardi Gras festivities February 6, 2005 in New Orleans, Louisiana. Festivities will continue all weekend, culminating with 'Fat Tuesday' February 8th. Mardi Gras is the last carnival celebration before the start of the Catholic holiday Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS Laissez le bon temps roulez! Roughly translated, it means: “let the good times rule.” The French saying comes alive in New Orleans today — fat Tuesday.

Believe me, we take good times seriously. We spend nearly the entire year preparing for the Mardi Gras season. Well-to-do business leaders with memberships in secret carnival societies spend thousands of dollars to don masks, ride brightly colored paper-mache floats, throw beads and doubloons to parade goers and attend masquerade balls catered with the finest wines, most potent spirits and traditional New Orleans cuisine.

New Orleans high school bands practice all year, synchronizing music notes, precision marching steps and flamboyant dance moves in flashy uniforms so that their band can be recognized as the best in this year’s parades.

Black men in New Orleans’ historic African-American neighborhoods practice chants and sew ornate costumes and masks appointed with feathers, beads, and sequins, all designed to imitate and pay tribute to Native Americans who helped Louisiana slaves escape their masters and find freedom. Accountants, teachers, lawyers and librarians trade their stiff business suits and dresses for creative costumes ranging from colorful and cheery to bold and political.

Sure it is a lot of work, but it is all in the name of a good time. As much food, drink, partying and sinning as you can stand until 11:59 pm, Tuesday night when Mardi Gras ends and the Christian season of Lent begins.

After more than three centuries of celebrating Mardi Gras, New Orleans has learned to make it a key component of our economy. We measure the success of each Mardi Gras by the tonnage of garbage and debris collected over the season. In 2010, between Super Bowl and Mardi Gras, the City collected more than 8,000 tons of refuse. In 2009, economists found Mardi Gras yielded $145 million in direct revenue and a $322 million indirect impact. Rubish you say? Well that trash accounts for 1.61 percent of New Orleans’ gross domestic product. That revenue is life blood for local businesses and translates into jobs and food on the dinner table for the citizenry.

But there is a downside. The jobs that support Mardi Gras in particular and tourism in general tend to be service industry positions that oftentimes do not pay high wages. In fact, frequently the wages are so low that employees have to work multiple jobs to keep the lights on and the cupboards from going bare.

The service industry accounts for 13 percent of jobs in the New Orleans metropolitan area, third only to government and retail. In 2009, the average annual income for service-related and food preparation occupations was $17,608 per year. Employees earning the 2009 industry average salary cannot afford the 2010 average apartment rent of $1,350 per month; $16,200 per year. Further, most service positions do not offer basic benefits like healthcare, sick or family leave or retirement savings.