While several of the candidates for mayor are talking what we think is the truth about the economic inequities that still divide New Orleans, it’s a fact that the New Orleans economy is in better shape today than it has been in years and that New Orleans has sprung back quicker after Katrina than many cities have since the financial markets’ collapse. But that does not mean our economic picture is rosy across the board.
The maritime industry is on an upswing under the capable leadership of Gary LaGrange. The tourism industry under Greg Rusovich, Mark Romig, Mavis Early, Bob Johnson and others is working hard to compete with glitzier marketing budgets and state-of-the-art convention centers across the country. Too many of our tourism industry jobs are low-paying and the opportunities for advancement – especially by undereducated and unskilled African-Americans workers stuck in minimum wage jobs – are minimal.
What we really need is a major expansion in the technology, science and information sectors that is propelling cities like Boston, Seattle, San Francisco and New York forward. We’re not saying that these industries are not growing in New Orleans but we need to push technology until New Orleans is celebrated as a “digital city” and tech surpasses tourism and/or the port as our leading industry. What we really like about the new tech jobs is that young minorities — African-Americans and Latinos — can be routed to these careers while still in high school and help build our middle class, and at the same time prepare our workers for science-related jobs.
In New York City, the number of African-Americans working in computer and mathematics (which the Census Bureau labels as tech jobs) has grown almost 20 percent. Latinos has shown a tech job gain of 25.4 percent. Nationally, 40 percent more Latino students are earning computer and information sciences degrees, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Let’s not forget that more than half of New Orleans current population is non-white. Helping connect these minorities with good paying jobs will also reduce crime.
While the number of people employed in restaurants, hotels and attractions in New Orleans continues to grow — thanks in part to folk like attractions czar Ron Forman and all the new restaurateurs — without constantly attracting more large conventions and an ever-increasing number of leisure visitors which generate demand for hotels and restaurants, real pay may well have fallen and brings the overall industry down.
GNO Inc. has done a good job of pushing New Orleans along the information and technology highway with tech incubators and other infrastructure improvements. That effort needs to be redoubled with hopefully additional support from Baton Rouge when a new governor is elected. But we as a city and whoever wins our mayor’s race in particular still need to focus on narrowing the income gap between those earning a living wage able to support their families and those struggling to make ends meet.
Our economic goal should be to reduce excessive dependence on the economic sectors that often fluctuate wildly and make the city’s economy — and tax revenues — less volatile in the future. We still need retail beyond Walmart to keep tax dollars in Orleans. Education of course is a key element in this mix to build a tech-centric agenda. Our public, private, and state-run school system should also ramp up more tech studies as well as health care to keep up with potential new jobs. The private sector should provide many more internships — paid and unpaid — so that young people can get hands-on experience in a particular industry.
Better education and training is clearly the key to reducing economic inequity, crime and broadening the city’s prosperity. President Obama has been speaking about economic inequity as an increasingly prominent issue.
The fact is rich Americans are pulling ahead and the middle class is shrinking. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the income of the top 1 percent of Americans rose 275 percent from 1979 to 2007, but only 18 percent for the bottom 20 percent. Furthermore at the end of 2013, the five biggest banks in the U.S. held 44 percent of the financial assets of the banking industry, up from 9.67 percent in 1990. We need economic will at the national level to change our economy globally.
Let’s hope our mayor, council and school leaders redirect their efforts toward the goal toward better educating students in STEM studies, and our economic development folks work with our elected leaders to create internships and new tech jobs right after next week’s elections.
Allan Katz spent 25 years as a political reporter and columnist at The Times-Picayune, and is now editor of the Kenner Star and host of several televsion programs, including the Louisiana Newsmaker on Cox Cable. Danae Columbus is executive producer of Louisiana Newsmaker, and has had a 30-year career in public relations, including stints at City Hall and the Dock Board. They both currently work for the Orleans Parish School Board, and Columbus is working on the campaigns of Stacy Head, Charles Foti and Jared Brossett. Among the recent candidates who have been represented by their public relations firm are Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne and council candidate Dana Kaplan.