Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Poverty in New Orleans

Poverty in New Orleans
Phil LaMancusa
            We gauge conditions of being financially uncomfortable by something called a poverty rate. The poverty rate is defined as the percentage of the population living below poverty level. Poverty level is defined as that level when a person or family’s income is so low that stress in being able to provide basic necessities (food, clothing, shelter) is felt; at times, acutely. As of 2015, 13.5 percent of Americans (43,100,000) live below poverty level—more children than women, more women than men. The statistics are staggering: blacks, 24.1 percent; Latinos, 24.1 percent; Asians, 11.9 percent; whites, 9.1 percent; and 33.6 percent of these numbers are children—living all around you. Academics Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer, authors of the book “$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America” report that there are nearly 1.5 million American households with practically no cash income at all. New Orleans fits quite comfortably in these parameters.
I was raised in the projects in the 1940s and 50s by a single parent relying on public welfare, healthcare, and education; five kids, the whole nine yards. The projects’ tenants were the elite of the neighborhood: all around us families were poorer. And surrounding us all were people not so poor. The economic checkerboard of neighborhoods was a constant reminder of who the “haves” were and who the “have-nots” weren’t, and if we were the “have-nots,” our neighbors were the “have-nothings.” We’re talking the literal definition of the word ‘poverty’; and like it or not, every society maintains a percentage of their population in poverty. Somebody’s got to perform cheap menial labor.
            We were adequately schooled; any better education and we might have aspired to greater heights. Our heroes were sports and cinema stars, musicians, and criminals, who had made a name for themselves and whose lifestyles we could emulate but never attain. In our later teens, we were pushed from school to enter society. Our choices were: military (or prison) uniforms, or, to follow in our parents’ footsteps and enter the world of the “working stiffs,” whose sweat greases the wheels of this great society. These were our rites of passage into adulthood and the only options when and where I was growing up. Being poor meant staying poor and raising your children to perpetuate this system of poverty—the norm. The advantage my family had was that we were white.
            When I came back to New Orleans in the late 90s, I found that little had changed from the 60s and 70s; there were still, at the close of the 20th century, moral, physical, and economic depression in the city. The Big Easy. Even today, 15 minutes from the mayor’s office, citizens are living in abject poverty. Let’s define that condition as I see it.
We’ll disregard, for the moment, the homeless, those in shelters, squatters, and tenants in our “new” projects; although these segments do round out the picture. State subsidized nursing homes, where tenants receive $38 a month to live on while taking away all of their other monies, is another form of poverty, but not what I’m speaking of here. To define poverty, we’ll begin by pointing out what it is not. Being poor isn’t necessarily living in poverty. Having secure employment and worrying about your financial prospects, your kid’s school choices, your mortgage, credit card debt, the note on your car, seasonal clothing; or choosing a dentist, cleaning woman, or hairdresser are very real concerns. However, while those things might keep you broke, it is NOT poverty. Over 20 % of New Orleans families of four living on a cash income of $10,000 a year or less is poverty (Pew Research).
 Anxiety about whether you’ll be evicted for non-payment of rent because you chose to put food on the table; fear of having your utilities cut off; whether the person who brings home the household’s money can/will have and keep a job; struggling, hustling, and scraping just to get by IS poverty. Having to take advantage of every free service (social security insurance, food stamps, food banks, emergency rooms, supplemental housing assistance) and then some, you live in survival mode.
 To be clear, as a mother, not being able to afford the adequate healthcare for your children that you ‘have access to’, not being able to plan a healthy parenthood, or even worse, the fear of putting the father’s name on your baby’s birth certificate is real poverty, not only financially but emotionally and psychologically. As a father, even if you yourself  live in poverty, when your name appears on a birth certificate, you’re held liable for support or, as a consequence of non-payment, can have your driver’s license revoked, effectively compromising everyone’s earnings and takings; father loses mobility, mother and child lose public assistance. That’s the Catch 22 of living in an America where the ‘have nothings’ are treated as lepers and parasites.
 Having to take jobs at minimum wage (because you lack formal education or training) and then be able to live on that money and support a family ($15,080 yearly); not being able to pay for fundamental living necessities (gas, electricity, water, food) …THAT’S POVERTY. Being poor and living in areas where the lack of necessities is the norm—areas where crime is commonplace, addiction is not regarded as an oddity, the strong oppress the weak, contention is encouraged, and where there is no way out … that’s poverty. 25-30% of all New Orleanians live in poverty; 44% of children under five live in poverty. For a single parent not to live in poverty, he or she has to take in over $46,000 a year (an hourly wage of $22.00). These numbers are verifiable. 
            When I came back, I was informed that the majority of the students that were pushed through our educational system were graduating high school with a fifth grade reading skill level; they are today’s parents and the dishwashers, porters, trash collectors, maids, fast food workers, lawn tenders and minimum wage earners. Our city (and state) leads the country in teen (unwed) pregnancy, crime, obesity, African American incarceration/unemployment, and child hunger. Going to school is an economic family sacrifice at best and rent increases are routine and arbitrary. Poorer families are pushed out when “revitalizers” move into a poor neighborhood.
            Dwell on this: I get home from work at 6:30 p.m., turn on the lights, and go to bed by 11:00 p.m.; I’m up two hours in the morning before leaving for work … and my electric bill is around $100 a month. Add to that the water bill, car insurance and repair, laundry, cable, food, rent, clothing, phone, health and dental insurance, the occasional movie or night out … and if I had to do that on $290 a week before taxes, what would I do? Where would I make my cuts? Adopt out my children? Quit eating nourishing food, abandon coffee outings, shaving, bathing, turn in my cell phone, relinquish my pets, sell my soul, take a second job, rob a bank, take out a loan, get credit cards and max them, curl into a fetal position and beg God for mercy? Forget about holidays, vacations or birthdays; where would that money come from? I’ve been painted into a corner, trapped; me and the other poor schmucks that are your neighbors. And what can be done about it? Poverty sucks. And ironically, poverty fluctuates with the stock market. When the market went into recession in 2008, the poverty rate—over the entire country—rose and kept on rising until 2010 when it fell (slowly) back to 2007 levels.
            There is a bill in the state legislature to raise the minimum wage; opposition, naturally, is split along party lines. State government doesn’t support it because they would have to give their workers a raise and --- the last governor having screwed us, leaving a huge deficit--- it would ,mean that raising minimum wage would put Louisiana even more in the hole. So, once again, the little guy takes it in the shorts and is kicked to the curb and all the authors of the bill want is a mere $0.75-an-hour raise. It would raise the minimum wage to $320 a week before taxes and that’s still poverty in New Orleans.
            We can accept or reject poverty in America. We can give our extra money to build hospitals, feed the starving in other countries and we look at the pictures of abandoned and mistreated puppies and ignore our neighbor’s plight. Or, we can realize that greed is at the root of all of our problems and do something about eliminating that, beginning with ourselves and not accepting it in others, especially the people that we put into public office. We can take part in our own recovery and, to paraphrase the man, declare that: “War (and poverty) is over… if you want it.”


Friday, January 6, 2017

Guests 2017

Po Boy Views
Phil LaMancusa
February Festivous
Guest-with-us for the Rest-of-us
            Whoopee! It’s February! Valentine’s Day! Carnival! Crawfish! The arrival of the Spring guests that turn up from now all the way into Jazz Fest (oh Boy!)
            I’ve pondered points and concluded that guests generally don’t quite get or feel comfortable bunking in with friends that they see once or twice a year. Believe me, that goes triple for the folks that play ‘hostess with the mostest’ for them. So, in the spirit of blatant honesty; let me literate my situation for the edification of incoming company.
My house.  First: this is as clean and orderly as it gets; second: don’t ask me where anything is because, in the cleaning and organizing, that I’ve spent the last two weeks laboring over, I don’t know where anything is! Quite simply: whatever you’re looking for, it’s around here, go find it. The soap might be in the freezer; spare light bulbs possibly under the broom; coffee is on the mantle; put your luggage in the tub (kidding). Next: don’t open the hall closet; that’s where we keep the soiled laundry that I haven’t had time to do because I’ve been cleaning/organizing to make a good impression on you.  Caution: not all the chairs are safe to sit on; none of the clocks tell the correct time, some lamps have ceased to illuminate and the ‘Smart TV’ is as dumb as a box of rocks
 The way I clean and organize is to start moving things around and I have an aversion to throwing things away that may be important and/or significant; two weeks of that and you’re bound to find anything anywhere, it’s not a mess, it’s home and we welcome you; mi casa/su casa and all that.
            We live in a half double shotgun house, which means that we have five big rooms that are stretched out one after another in a straight line so that, if you were to fire a shot gun in the front door, you would hit whatever was at the back door; hence the name. The living room is in the front and the kitchen in the back separated by two bedrooms, (one where you’ll be staying) a bath and a dining room, small yards front and back.
Here is our schedule: we work seven days a week, most times until 6:30-7:00 at night; we come home, we have a little Happy Hour and then dinner, down time and bed by 11:00. Debbie is up around six to feed the herd (three cats and a dog and various outside strays), coffee, walk the dog and then to the Treme Center for swimming and exercise. Then to coffee at Whole Foods (bagel and cookies) and then back to work. Some nights we don’t get in until after eight; it comes with owning a business.
            We have lives much bigger that ourselves; the dining room also is used for painting pictures and a chair to read or listen to tapes to learn the foreign language du jour. The living room has a piano and other musical instruments, none of which we have mastered; there are unfinished projects throughout the house, countless books and novels, collections of coins, world globes, statues, photos and finger bowls. The kitchen is filled with spices for our signature blends and other handy non fresh ingredients that we supplement with fresh stuff from the green grocer; a full larder, for ease of cooking. Except for the occasional dairy product, we keep a vegan kitchen; if you want to cook otherwise you’re welcome to, just know that anything you don’t eat, may perish. We come home loaded down with all the detritus from the day and deposit said stuff on our way to the refrigerator, which means, all through the rooms. In the mean time, baths, shaving, cat litter cleaning, recycling, composting, bed making and visits to our neighbors, our veterinarians, food markets and shopkeepers keep us active and generally invisible.
            The first cat gets up at six and complains loudly that he’s not been fed for at least eight hours, at this point the dog needs let out. There’s time to sit a spell in the morning and when you use the bathroom for your morning toilet, expect all cats to visit; the youngest one loves to watch humans take baths (there is no shower), the little dog may want to sleep under your blankets (with you).
            We live in a neighborhood, which means we walk, we talk, greet and hail people that we see in the streets; introduce yourself, tell them who you are and behave like a guest and not a short term rental tenant. Smile. We don’t expect you to be bringing home any lovers, possibly some people that you may meet but not sheet shakers, okay? We rarely have parties at home; home is our sanctuary: that’s how we picture it. Don’t try to clean up after us, just take care of your own space odyssey and everything will be hunky-dory.
            You’re welcome to use the car responsibly, although we don’t have it insured for a second driver; the brakes are good and the tires are fair. It’s that ’94 Lincoln Towncar that’s parked crooked in the street. It has over 237,000 miles on it and is cranky and idiosyncratic at best. The windows, air-conditioning and sometimes the door handles or trunk switch sticks or doesn’t work at all. It has a radio tuned to 94.3 an oldies station… on second thought, maybe you should leave the driving to me.
            So, you get the picture; you’ll fit in just fine because you won’t expect anything to be normal around here; in fact, seeing as you’re our friend and all, it may remind you of home.