January 21, 2007
New Orleans of Future May Stay Half Its
By ADAM NOSSITER
NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 20 — The empty streets, deserted avenues and
abandoned houses prompt a gnawing question, nearly 17 months after
Hurricane Katrina: Is this what New Orleans has come to — a city half its old
Over and over, the city’s leaders reassure citizens that better days and, above
all, more people are in the future. Their destiny will not merely be to reside in
a smaller city with a few good restaurants and curious local customs, the
citizens are told.
But some economists and demographers are beginning to wonder whether
New Orleans will top out at about half its prestorm population of about
444,000, already in a steep decline from its peak of 627,525 in the 1960
Census. At the moment, the population is well below half, and future gains are
likely to be small.
“It will be a trickle based on what we know now,” said Elliott Stonecipher, a
consultant and demographer based in Shreveport, La. “Low tens of thousands,
over three or four or five years, something in that range. I would say we could
start losing people, especially if the crime problem doesn’t get high visibility.”
The new doubts, surprisingly, are largely not based on the widespread damage
caused by the flood. Rather, crippling problems that existed long before
Hurricane Katrina are mostly being blamed for the city’s failure to thrive.
In this view, the storm was merely a grim exclamation point to conditions
decades in the making. Before the storm, some economists say, New Orleans
may have had more people than its economy could support, and the stalled
repopulation is merely reflecting that.
Hurricane Katrina may have brutally recalibrated the city’s demographics,
setting New Orleans firmly on the path its underlying characteristics had
already been leading it down: a city losing people at the rate of perhaps 1.5
percent a year before Hurricane Katrina, with a stagnant economy, more than
a quarter of the population living in poverty, and a staggeringly high rate of
unemployment, in which as many as one in five were jobless or not seeking
Political leaders, worried about the loss of clout and a Congressional seat,
press for people to return, but a smaller New Orleans may not be bad, some
economists say. Most of those who have not returned — 175,000, by Mr.
Stonecipher’s count — are very poor, and can be more easily absorbed in
places with vibrant job markets, they say.
Large-scale concentrations of deep poverty — as was the case in New Orleans
before the storm — are inherently harmful to cities. The smaller New Orleans
is almost certain to wind up with a far higher percentage of its population
working than before Hurricane Katrina.
“Where there are high concentrations of poverty, people can’t see a way out,”
said William Oakland, a retired economist from Tulane University who has
studied the city’s economy for decades. “Maybe the diaspora is a blessing.”
Others, however, worry that permanently losing so many people threatens the
city’s culture — its unique way of talking, parading and eating.
“Culture is people,” said Richard Campanella, a Tulane geographer who has
written extensively about the city’s neighborhoods. “If half the local people are
dispersed and no longer living cohesively in those social networks, then half of
local culture is gone.”
The new doubts also take into account the current barriers to repopulation,
including the well-documented failure of the state’s Road Home aid program
for homeowners, the loss of tens of thousands of jobs since the storm, the
crime problem and delays in rebuilding moderately priced housing. Official
efforts — local, state and federal — to rebuild the network of hospitals, schools
and public housing projects that once served the city’s huge poor population
have been faltering. But they also look at what New Orleans was before the
The low population figure, 191,000, which was reported by the Louisiana
Recovery Authority in November last year in the most credible survey to date,
was about half the 444,000 count in a Census estimate before Hurricane
Katrina. The number was surprising, dashing expectations of a “big return,” as
one economist put it, and was hotly disputed by local officials. Still, upticks, if
there are any, are imperceptible: the percentage of prehurricane gas and
electric users who were getting service, for instance, remained the same
between April and November 2006, the Brookings Institution reported last
“Our expectations were just wrong,” said James A. Richardson, an economist
who directs the Public Administration Institute at Louisiana State University.
“I don’t believe it will ever be 450,000 again. I think New Orleans did not need
450,000 people to support the economy you had at that time.”
With no real place for the poorest of the evacuees in the economy before the
storm, New Orleans may have permanently lost that part of its population.
Supporting that notion is an unpublished analysis by Mr. Oakland, the former
Tulane economist, which shows unusually low rates of participation in the
labor force before Hurricane Katrina.
Thus, a frequent impression of prehurricane travelers to New Orleans — that
there were “a lot of people hanging around, going nowhere,” as the Nobel-
winning Columbia University economist Edmund S. Phelps, a sometime-
visitor, puts it — turns out to have a statistical basis.
The statistics, which compare the number of people actually working with the
total working-age population, suggest “there are a lot of people out there not
working,” said Mr. Oakland, referring to the period before Hurricane Katrina.
Or, he said, they were working in an underground economy, not measured by
statistics. If not actually illegal, he said, it was not very profitable.
In New Orleans, before the storm, about 4 out of 10 men in the working-age
population were out of a job or not looking for one, compared with less than 3
in 10 nationally.
Employment had dropped sharply in the city from 1969 to 1999, Mr. Oakland
writes. More than half of young black men ages 16 to 24 were not in the labor
force. Unemployment rates among young blacks were above 25 percent. “The
data is showing New Orleans is really a basket case,” Mr. Oakland said.
In the city’s poorest areas, the numbers were even more discouraging. In
places like the Lower Ninth Ward or Central City, half of all working-age
people were not looking for work, Mr. Oakland wrote. The real unemployment
rate in these impoverished, high-crime areas, which would include those not
looking for work, would have been a “whopping” 32 percent, he wrote.
Compounding the city’s difficulties, and, in effect, helping to stem the
population loss, was a secondary factor: the direness of the city’s poverty, and
its concentration. Those conditions helped make the city’s poor population
exceptionally immobile. New Orleans was also poor not only in absolute
terms, but also in relative terms. The poorest 30 percent of households had a
lower share of the city’s total income than the comparable slice in any other
similar Southern city, Mr. Oakland found.
“The job mobility was very low among the poor, so they just stay where they
are, and the social welfare system shored them up,” Mr. Oakland said.
The city’s population was thus “out of equilibrium, if you would say that,” Mr.
Oakland added. “It’s not normal to have that level of nonparticipation in the
Haunting the city’s effort to repopulate, too, is the incalculable toll inflicted by
ghosts from its past — a political legacy of corruption and patronage, and a
deep racial division with a far more distressing passage toward integration
than was experienced, say, in Atlanta.
Looking to the future, another 50,000 people might eventually be added to the
city’s population, Mr. Oakland suggested, but there are no guarantees.
There has been little to no construction of cheap housing that would enable
the return of the largest category of those still displaced, Mr. Stonecipher
A second category of people, 50,000 or more who have established themselves
elsewhere but who could return, may be even harder to recapture, given the
combination of past weaknesses and continuing present-day hurdles.
“The longer it lasts, the more likely it is that our population is plateauing, the
longer the uncertainty continues,” said Janet Speyrer, an economist at the
University of New Orleans.
The State of New Orlean, Pre and Post Katrina
This article is about the state or New Orleans as as city before and after Hurricane
Katrina. It begins by saying that the city is not likley to retrun to it’s pre-hurricane population as
many of the residents will not return to the storm ravaged area. The author tells us that over time
New Orleans had become some what of a “Basket Case” in that it had too many residents to
support for the size of the city. He shows us that the population was actually declining from
1969 675,000 to 444,000 just before the storm. They now estimate that only about 50% of thos
people will return after the storm.
In many cases this may actually be good for the city some people say. The problem was
that there were not enough jobs to go around and when there are not enough jobs, crime goes up.
New Orleans is a perfect example of this theory. The author alos cites statistics to show us that a
huge number of people were not participating in the pre hurricane work force. This number for
certain of the poorest segments of the city was a whopping 32%. That number is more than three
times the nantional unemployment rate. It was easy to deduce from this that New Orleans as a
whole did not have enough of an economy to sustain the population. It is a difficult parallel to
draw, but think of it as “Thinning the Herd.” This means that by cutting down on the population,
the people who work in New Orleans may actually have enough jobs to go around.
I think the author did a good job of using statistics in this article. He gave actualy figures
to support his statistics and did not muddy the water with too many numbers.