Most Americans are familiar with measuring poverty in terms of dollars and cents, believing that the dividing line between rich and poor is one that separates high incomes from medium – and low-range earnings. But a new study on poverty in New Orleans by local researchers released this month digs deeper and examines – not only incomes – but the relationship between asset wealth and being able to live above the poverty line.
Commissioned by the Greater New Orleans Foundation, the study, entitled "Assets & Opportunity Profile: New Orleans," is aimed at fueling "a local conversation about wealth, poverty and opportunity," according to the foundation, and presents "a snapshot of the financial security and opportunities for New Orleans residents."
Key findings in the document include research indicating that 37 percent of New Orleanians live in what is known as asset poverty, a category met when the liquidation of a person's assets is not enough to provide a higher-than-impoverished standard of living for a three-month period in the absence of a regular income.
Dr. Albert Ruesga, who heads the New Orleans foundation, calls that figure "staggering" and points out that New Orleans outpaces Louisiana and the rest of the country in the number of people who lack sufficient assets. But while Black households in New Orleans are hardest hit by the figures – half of all Black residents live in asset poverty – the impact of having limited hard assets is felt across racial, educational and even economic lines.
"Twenty-two percent of people who have a bachelor's degree in New Orleans live in asset poverty," Ruesga says. "Thirteen percent of residents who have advanced degrees live in asset poverty. That means there are people with master's degrees and doctorates who are living without adequate resources."
Forty percent of area Latinos live in asset poverty and more than 20 percent of whites and Asians join them. Ruesga points out that nearly 30 percent of New Orleanians with annual incomes between $45,000 and $70,000 also face challenges with surviving on their existing assets in lieu of a regular paycheck.
"This underscores just how many people are only one or two paychecks away from being homeless," Ruesga says. "This type of research is important because simply looking at poverty from an income standpoint is not enough; this helps to present a more complete picture. There are people with some pretty high incomes when you look at it on the surface, but who are still living in poverty when it comes to assets."
Solving these issues is a multi-pronged approach, Ruesga says, and the study lays out several recommendations for policymakers and stakeholders to examine like creating neighborhood-based financial centers, establishing a local earned income tax credit, and incorporating financial education into social service and workforce development programs.
"Municipalities can also limit the development of check cashing and payday loan centers through zoning restrictions," Ruesga adds. "These places take advantage of the 'underbanked' – people who either don't have a bank account for various reasons or have one and don't use it – and charge very high fees for their services."
Because more than 70 percent of New Orleans residents have subprime credit scores, Ruesga notes, affordable lending opportunities can be hard to come by. "They're not going to get a loan and the check cashing centers then serve as local banks. Second-chance banking for people with credit difficulties should be encouraged."
The foundation study comes on the heels of a flood of other data about the economic vitality of the New Orleans region, including a study produced by local researchers linking life expectancy in the area to one's neighborhood and an Urban League report examining the health of the city's business, social and political climate for Black residents.
But while the confluence of the information from the various reports is coincidental, Ruesga says the data contained in the three documents point to the need for systemic change in New Orleans and the reports build on each other and make it hard for policymakers to ignore the challenges faced by the city's residents.
But "on the positive side," according to the study, "entrepreneurship has spiked in the New Orleans metro post-Katrina." New Orleans has more self-employed residents than the national average, many of whom are Black, and study's authors contend that "[f]or these microenterprises to become strong income producers, effective business training, financial literacy education, and financing and professional service supports are critical."
The data for the study were culled from Census figures, the TransUnion credit rating agency and other public sources, according to Allison Plyer, who spearheads demographic research for the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center. Her group helped furnish the information for the foundation report and researchers spent months coming over the data before streamlining the figures into the eight-page study.
Plyer says that while the numbers outlined in the study are sobering, "They are not surprising," she says, given the state of the local and national economy and the city's long history with struggling to abate poverty. "What's clear from the information that is outlined is that there are a lot of people who are living on the edges of poverty."