Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
2016 was the first year since Hurricane Katrina that more people left New Orleans than moved in domestically—that has a lot to do with the dismal job market that continues to repel young professionals.
Of the millions of people battling Hurricane Harvey in Houston right now, there are no doubt many who ended up in Houston after evacuating New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina 12 years ago. And while there are some apt comparisons between Harvey and Katrina, the reasons why people might turn evacuation into more permanent relocation aren’t all the same. For one, Houston’s floods are the result of pure rainfall, while New Orleans’ floods were the consequence of faulty infrastructure—the infamous breaching of the levees.
Also, the people evacuating Houston are leaving a city where the work economy—its job market, professional industries, and salaries—is quite robust. Houston is listed among the top ten cities for job seekers, according to the jobs blog Indeed, and among the top twenty cities for high salaries, according to Business Insider.
As for New Orleans, well, it wouldn’t be unfair to say that during Katrina more than a few families were as much abandoning their city’s miserable economy as they were its miserable flood infrastructure.
Which is why, while Houston took on hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians around this time twelve years ago, when Katrina made a fool of those levees—New Orleans is in a bad position to return the favor.
“Houston, and friends of Houstonians, reach out if you have people leaving and need a place to stay,” wrote Sonali Fernando, who works for the Ace Hotel in New Orleans, on her Facebook page. “I do not think New Orleans is a great place to evacuate to, as we are still subject to storms and effects of storms, but always happy to help. Encourage people to head North.”
It’s not that New Orleans hasn’t experienced any recovery since Katrina. According to the New Orleans-based The Data Center, there are 21 neighborhoods in the city that now have more active residential addresses than existed before Katrina. A handful of neighborhoods have seen their populations depleted well below their pre-Katrina marks, but they are mostly where public housing projects were torn down and replaced with smaller mixed-income developments. New Orleans also has brand new $15 billion levees, but engineers say they likely won’t make much difference if another Katrina-level storm were to hit. On top of that, the state of Louisiana recently finalized a coastal master plan that will hopefully provide additional buffers to extreme inclement events—much of that plan paid for, ironically, with funds courtesy of another recent Gulf Coast disaster, the BP oil spill.
However, less than a month ago, numerous New Orleans neighborhoods suffered Katrina-level floods—including a few neighborhoods that had never flooded before—from a basic rainstorm. The culprit this time was faulty sewer drainage equipment. This means despite $15 billion worth of levee walls built around certain parts of New Orleans, the families in the city remain vulnerable to flood displacement.
Combine those problems with a job market that remains as depressed as it was before Katrina, and you have a scenario where displacement might easily become a permanent fixture in the city. As it stands, last year was the first year since Katrina that more people left New Orleans than moved in domestically, according to the The Data Center (net migration into the city is positive by 260 people only after accounting for people who moved to New Orleans from other countries).
What Katrina exposed was New Orleans’ unique vulnerability in three major areas: work, housing, and climate change, all of which remain unstable twelve years later.
Is New Orleans Worth It?
On August 21, New Orleans’ alt-weekly The Gambit published a feature by Kat Stromquist asking a question that has perennially bounced around the city since Katrina, and possibly before that, but mostly in whispers: “Is New Orleans Worth It?”
The article focuses on the costs of living there, especially as the price of housing has grown more prohibitive, particularly for renters. The story draws from the experiences of five people in their late 20s and 30s, some of whom moved to the city after Katrina, but are recently feeling like they can’t hack it. Some have academic degrees, but there are not enough jobs in the city that match their skills. So, they have to take jobs that are beneath them, bartending or serving restaurant tables, perhaps taking jobs that probably should be going to people with only high school diplomas or less.
The Gambit article was received less than warmly by a number of readers for choosing to highlight the lives of people who had relatively short investment in the city. (One Gambit commenter derisively wrote that the article should have been titled, "Is New Orleans Worth It For A Segregated Class Of Young White Professionals Aspiring For Upward Mobility?"). Some people who’ve lived in New Orleans their whole lives were, understandably, perturbed with the framing of the story. Gian Smith, an African-American poet and educator who was born and raised in New Orleans, thought the article overlooked longtime residents and workers who suffer more than anyone in the city’s labor market.
“These people aren’t being offered any new jobs, they have the same job possibilities as before, same wages as before, but are still having to deal with the rising costs of living,” says Smith. “For a while, New Orleans was a place where you could find a one bedroom apartment for $550. That [increase in rents] didn’t come because of native New Orleanians, who’ve been here for 25 to 35 years. But they’re the ones who can’t just pick up and leave—but they can barely afford to stick around.”
The Millennial experiment
While Smith was perturbed by the article, he admits that it surfaced some inconvenient truths about work opportunities in New Orleans. According to Smith, having meaningful employment in New Orleans usually means you need some kind of “resources,” meaning connections to employers in high places.
There is a strong strand of nepotism, or at least a reputation for nepotism, that has run through the city for ages. If true, one could see how that could hamper the job prospects of anyone new to the city with no friends or family there. New Orleans is by no means unique in this regard, but it was a real enough issue back then that Nathan Rothstein felt compelled to help pull together a support network for the newcomers.
Then just 23 years old, Rothstein helped launch the group NOLA YURP (Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals) ten years ago to harness the energy of all those young planners, designers, architects, creatives, and other volunteers who descended upon New Orleans during the post-Katrina recovery phase. They were the first wave of Millennials, who weren’t afraid to venture outside their home bases and comfort zones to make a difference somewhere else. Rothstein figured that to retain all that new talent, the city would need a robust and accessible job market to keep them in place.
“[It] is sometimes hard for me to think about that time because of how young I was and how ignorant I was about how cities work and how New Orleans works,” says Rothstein. “But one of our talking points was: How do we create a city where we have a professional class, and where people can have jobs that pay them a decent wage? It was an interesting time because all of these people were coming from out of town to do volunteer work and service work, but if New Orleans was going to keep them, there had to be some way to move up the ranks.”
Technically, the New Orleans Millennial experiment should have worked. While the rest of the country was falling swiftly into a near-recession during that 2007-10 period, due to the finance and housing crashes, New Orleans was collecting hefty sums of stimulus funds from federal emergency disaster and ARRA stashes—which should have meant jobs and higher wages. This was the halcyon reconstruction phase when billions of dollars in tax credits were pouring in for new markets, renewable energy, low-income housing, and the entertainment industry. It was a YURPerman’s paradise.
By the end of 2010, however, things began changing dramatically. Federal stimulus funds began drying up, as did the fiesta of philanthropic support. Nonprofits began pulling out. A new mayor was installed, and later, an old mayor would go to jail. BP gave the Gulf Coast a spanking new calamity to direct its resources and attention to, drawing most of the action (and jobs) further south, away from New Orleans.
If you were a 20-something who arrived in New Orleans right after Katrina, then by 2012 you needed the fruits of your labor to start blossoming if you were going to remain. If your nonprofit or startup went bust in those years, you needed a job. If you met the love of your life and were planning a family, you needed a job. If you had an unplanned pregnancy, you needed a job.
Faced with these realities, but unable to find work befitting of their academic credentials, many of these YURPers packed up and went home, or went back to college. Rothstein himself ended up back in his home state of Massachusetts where he began grad school.
“It was such a fascinating time, to think about how you rebuild an American city, but there was some animosity for tourist people like me telling them that these are the solutions on how to fix the city,” says Rothstein. “I was perceived as bringing young white people to the city taking jobs from New Orleans people and black people. And honestly, I understand that resentment, I get it. But our goal was mainly to open up the job networks throughout the city.”
Leader in income inequality; last in prosperity
After the YURPers came and went, the locals remained in a job situation just about as dire as it ever was. It’s no secret that New Orleans’ job market is trash. It relies too heavily upon hourly-wage, non-union jobs in the service- and tourism-related industries. It’s been like this since the 1980s, when the oil boom went bust for New Orleans. New Orleans labor advocates have been part of the national Fight for $15 campaigns, to seek living wages, but so far they’ve had to settle for the living-wage-lite ordinance that went into effect last year lifting wages to $10.55 an hour. A measure in the state legislature to lift the minimum wage from $7.50 to $8.50 by 2019 failed this past May.
There was once a strong market for black women teaching in public schools, but when the school board refused to renew the teachers’ union contract after Katrina, several thousand teachers lost their jobs. Most of those teachers wound up teaching in schools scattered across Louisiana and in other states. This was a Katrina-related mass displacement that was not directly connected to the floods. Meanwhile, the new school system in New Orleans, which now consists almost exclusively of charter schools, has a much whiter teacher force that makes less money than the unionized public school teachers before the storm.
The employment picture for New Orleans was dismal in the years just before Katrina. As this Urban Institute report stated just after the storm:
The precarious employment status of New Orleans residents before the storm at least partly reflected their limited educational attainment and cognitive skills and the concentration of jobs in lower-wage industries. ...Total service jobs represented 26 percent of all jobs and paid an average of only $8.30 per hour. At least partly, these figures reflect low wages in New Orleans’ tourist trade.
As of December 2004, wage rates paid in New Orleans averaged $16.76 per hour, about 7 percent below the national average and 18 percent below the $20.39 average paid in Houston.
Today the average hourly wage in the New Orleans region has increased by only about $4.00 and is 13 percent below the national average. In fact, just about every job sector in New Orleans returns an average hourly wage that lags well below national averages. Meanwhile, Houston’s average hourly wage, $25.42, by comparison, is now 7 percent above the nationwide average.
With a $9 wage gap favoring white workers over African Americans, Policylink’s Equity Atlas ranks New Orleans third among the 100 largest U.S. cities in income inequality. New Orleans’ regional economy would have gained $18.4 billion more than it did in 2014 if those racial income gaps would have been closed. According to Brookings Institution’s Metro Monitor report, New Orleans comes dead last among the top 100 major metros in terms of productivity, average annual wages, and standard of living.
For a moment, there was some wage parity, in the months right after Katrina, when restaurants and hotels were offering double-digit hourly wages and bonuses worth thousands of dollars to lure the displaced back to the city. Today, the average wage for food prep and service in New Orleans is back in the single digits, and forget about a bonus. Wages for the lowest percentile of workers have dropped since 1979, while wages for the top percentile of workers grew 16 percent.
The professional ceiling for people of color
As often as it’s reported how much New Orleans is overrun with poverty, it’s easy to forget that there are large pockets of middle-class communities. But even they have a tough time getting jobs and decent wages unless they have those “resources” Smith was talking about. Policylink’s Equity Profile of New Orleans states that African-American unemployment rates are “significantly higher than other groups at every level of education.” Black workers also earn lower wages than white workers at every education level.
Rafael Delgadillo, a Dominican-American, grew up almost his whole life in New Orleans and earned two degrees at the University of New Orleans. He left the city in 2013 after he was shot during a car robbery attempt, but he says he likely was going to leave the city anyway, due to the lack of opportunities available for people of color.
“There is definitely a ceiling when it comes to being a professional. I was doing nonprofit and I thought that would be my career trajectory,” says Delgadillo. “You gotta know somebody, you won’t be the son of Latino immigrants in this town and be connected to certain industries and certain jobs.”
Today, he’s a student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, working on a Ph.D. in Latin American and Latino Studies, a program that’s not offered in New Orleans. His research is in civic engagement among Latino communities in municipalities in the Deep South. He says that if he returns to New Orleans, it will be to examine it as a case study.
Meanwhile, he says the kind of relocation he underwent is “inevitable” for people of color, if they’re going to have any kind of economic mobility. But he says it’s not much different than the kind of relocation patterns of African Americans throughout history.
“Nobody knows how to get up out of the south like black people, and we see that in the Great Migration” says Delgadillo. “The biggest problem with New Orleans is that it’s in Louisiana. A city like this with the cultural heritage and landscape that it has would thrive in any other state. Other states wouldn’t let a city like that rot away. There would be political and cultural visions developed to make it the flagship of the state.”
Running into the same brick wall
One industry that was supposed to show great promise for New Orleans is the medical sector. After closing the 300-year-old Charity Hospital during Katrina, the city has since created an entire hospital district, complete with a new Veterans Affairs hospital, and additional medical schools and centers run by Louisiana State University and Tulane University. Meanwhile, small customized, community-based health clinics have been scattered across the city, which has been considered a successful formula.
Yet, the health industry hasn’t met its full potential, in no small part because former Governor Bobby Jindal rejected Affordable Care Act resources and refused to expand Medicaid. Current Governor John Bel Edwards reversed these positions just last year, which means now the health system has some catching up to do. But it’s showing healthy signals.
The industry does promise higher wages. But the issue of equity remains a problem. Kenyon Farrow, an African American public health advocate, lived in New Orleans for a few years before Katrina working with grassroots racial justice organizations. After a few years in New York he moved back to New Orleans in 2012 to do HIV/AIDS advocacy work. What he noticed was that there were few people who looked like him in leadership positions working in this space, even though New Orleans has one of the highest HIV/AIDS rates for African Americans in the nation.
“Before the Medicaid expansion, most of what I saw in terms of work opportunities for working class black folks was a lot of home health aides and frontline healthcare staff—low-income jobs despite the high demand for them,” says Farrow. “But as you climb up the ladder of organizations, they were mostly white. That was very pervasive, and frankly it’s still pervasive despite that now the state has expanded Medicaid and there are more resources and probably more jobs being created.”
Farrow was somewhat insulated from these inequities because his employer at the time was based out of state. But when he left that job and began searching for work locally, he ran into that same brick wall his peers were slamming into. There seemed to be no jobs for someone with his qualifications, and he wasn’t going to take a lesser job that was better deserved for someone who perhaps lived all their life in the city, but didn’t manage to get a degree. After months of job searching, he reluctantly began seeking work outside of New Orleans, landing a job in a matter of weeks of searching in Washington, D.C.
Having read the Gambit article, about whether New Orleans is “worth it,” Farrow says that was one question he didn’t really have the luxury to lounge around and figure out. The question the story posed was real, but it failed by framing it around “the gentrifiers,” he said. Which is to say that while the transplant Millennials are just now catching a cold from New Orleans’ frigid job market, black and brown workers had already caught the proverbial pneumonia.
“It doesn’t reflect how many people who are born and raised in New Orleans, often end up moving,” says Farrow. “That’s not even about Katrina it’s more about New Orleanians saying, ‘Fuck that, I’m tired of struggling here, I’m moving to Houston.”
But as bad as it is in Houston right now, with the floods, and the promise of more storms due to climate change, one thing you will not hear from them is, Fuck that, I’m moving to New Orleans.
*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story failed to explain that the 2016 data on people moving in and out of New Orleans counted domestic and not international migration.