Ignorance is not bliss
During this mayoral campaign, incumbent Kip Holden and chief rival Mike Walker have had zero problem finding areas of disagreement. At forum after endless forum, it's bluntly clear to anyone paying the least bit of attention that these two share little in common when it comes to solving the problems of this parish or in their visions for the future of Baton Rouge.
Walker is the defender of the suburbanites; Holden is a man of the downtown urbanites. Walker wants to focus our economic future on blue-collar jobs at refineries and chemical plants; Holden says our future is tied to knowledge-based jobs in research, technology and the digital arts. Walker says the way to get crime under control is to flood the streets with police officers; Holden is staking his hopes on the BRAVE initiative. Walker says there's no need for new taxes; Holden regularly champions tax hikes and mandatory fee increases.
Yet Walker and Holden are in agreement on one point: a willingness to ignore the escalating poverty rate in this parish, a rate that, according to the Census Bureau, is now estimated to be at 20.1%. Think about that: One out of every five East Baton Rouge residents is living in poverty. Even worse is incorporated Baton Rouge, where the number is one in four.
Walker, when scaring voters about crime, regularly proclaims that Baton Rouge is fast becoming another New Orleans. He does not, however, seem the least bit concerned that we're rapidly approaching NOLA-like numbers on the poverty front. Orleans Parish tops the state in poverty at 28.9%. More puzzling is why Holden, who comes from one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in the parish, is equally content to say nothing.
Why isn't Holden or Walker—or long-shot candidates Steve Myers and Gordon Mese—talking about the No. 1 problem facing this parish? Why are they ignoring a reality that's both alarming and embarrassing? They take every opportunity to talk about the increasing job count numbers in the parish, yet why do they ignore what's also true: that wages are declining and our poverty numbers are climbing?
The cynical answer is that none of these candidates really care about one of Baton Rouge's fastest-growing constituencies—the poor. The rich and middle class, yes; the poor, no.
The Census Bureau estimates that 86,880 people in this parish are living in poverty. On a pure numbers basis, that's just 13,829 fewer than in Orleans Parish. In general, the face of poverty in Baton Rouge is black and largely uneducated. Nearly 30% of the black population is impoverished, and 38% of all people in poverty lack a high school degree. Those, frankly, are not people that politicians care about on the campaign trail.
No, this is an election that will be decided by those with jobs who live in neighborhoods far from where poverty happens, on the other side of Florida Boulevard. The election won't be decided by those who live in neighborhoods where an annual household income of $144,000 qualifies you as a one-percenter; it will be decided by those living south of Florida, where it takes $379,431 to make the 1% cut.
The irony is that those who are angry about taxes, worry about crime and complain about the lack of a qualified workforce should demand our elected leaders get serious about a problem that's not just a Baton Rouge problem, but a statewide crisis. Louisiana is No. 3 in America, with 20.4% of its population in poverty.
To me, an all-out assault on reversing the poverty numbers should be a fiscal conservative's battle cry. Do you know how much this state spends annually on mitigating poverty? It's at least $9 billion, and what do we have to show for it? The problem is only getting worse. Talk about the inefficiency of government.
That's $9 billion annually in taxpayer dollars that isn't improving public education, that isn't funding four-year universities and two-year colleges, that isn't building or repairing roads. And, no, the solution is not as simple as telling the poor to get off their butts, get off welfare and go get a job.
Gov. Bobby Jindal and LED's Stephen Moret say the best solution to the poverty problem is job creation. True, that's part of the solution, but it's also true this state is littered with jobs that remain vacant because people lack the qualifications to land them. One can claim all the job creation stats one wants, but if no one is around to fill the job, is it actually a job?
Maybe at the next candidate forum Holden and Walker can tackle that existential question, while ignoring the one that's critically important.
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The old two-year college try