A new index measuring poverty, racial disparities, and immigrant exclusion has ranked Louisiana as the worst of all 50 states based on indicators related to household income, public school segregation, and health insurance, among others.
A project of the Jesuit Social Research Institute at Loyola University New Orleans, the JustSouth Index 2016 was designed to measure the overall state of social justice in the Gulf South states, which include Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. By gathering data on what researchers called “basic” living standards indicators like housing affordability, immigrant youth outcomes, wage gaps between white residents and people of color, the index ranked states on a 0-1 scale.
Louisiana, Texas, and Mississippi were found to have the lowest scores while Vermont, New Hampshire, and Hawaii bagged the top three spots.
The average annual income among low-income households in Louisiana was $11,156, compared to a nationwide average of $15,281, according to the index. Almost 20 percent of Louisiana residents live in poverty, according to Census data. While the state fared slightly better than Mississippi—whose poorest households earn an average of $9,891 per year—it lagged behind Gulf Coast states like Florida and Texas, where annual household earnings for low-income households were $13,890 and $14,776, respectively.
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More than 32 percent of low-income Louisiana residents live without health insurance, the index found, more than ten percentage points higher than the national average of 21.16 percent. Louisiana had the highest share of what researchers identified as “disconnected” immigrant youth—young people who were neither in school nor employed—with more than 20 percent, compared to an average of 15.23 percent across all other states.
More than 90 percent of low-income Louisiana households face a high housing cost burden, higher than all the other Gulf Coast states except Florida, which has a 93.73 percent high housing cost burden rate. According to the index, “families who pay more than 30 percent of their total household income for housing are considered by the federal Housing and Urban Affairs Department to be ‘housing cost burdened.'”
Schools, too, reflect the dismal state of social justice in Louisiana, with more than 22 percent of public schools segregated by race. ThinkProgress reported last year on efforts to desegregate Louisiana’s public schools, noting that the state was by no means an outlier in the creation of segregated educational systems.
Citing data from a University of California, Los Angeles, study, ThinkProgress noted that 43 percent of Latino students and 38 percent of Black students nationwide attend schools where their white classmates make up less than 10 percent of the student body. Still, the segregation rate in Louisiana is higher than the national average of 15.55 percent, and higher than the segregation rates in Texas and Florida, which stand at 8.97 and 7.77 percent, respectively.
The impact of school segregation in Louisiana combines with multiple intersecting injustices to make the state of 4.6 million people a particularly bleak place for low-income individuals and communities of color. For instance, the wage gap between people of color and their white counterparts of similar age, occupation, and educational background is more than 20 percent in Louisiana, far higher than the national earnings gap of 8.8 percent.
In Iowa, which ranked 11th on the index, that earnings gap is 1.3 percent.
The state struggles with a relatively high gap between minority unemployment rates compared to white unemployment rates, with a 5.8 percent gap compared to the national average of 4.1 percent. While this is not as high as the gap in Washington D.C., which, at 9.5 percent, is the highest in the country, it presents challenges in Louisiana, where 32 percent of the population is Black.