Study Catalyzes Action to Improve Earnings for New Orleans’ Working Poor

Author: Allison Plyer and G. Thomas Kingsley
Date Posted: December 19, 2017

Despite the economic resurgence post-Hurricane Katrina in the New Orleans metropolitan area, many workers remain stuck in low-wage jobs. The Data Center, as part of their New Orleans Index series, published a study that found that nearly 60 percent of jobs in the region failed to pay high enough wages to cover the current cost of living. This finding led the City Council to require city contractors to pay a living wage and persuaded a large nonprofit to increase wages for its employees.

The study also reported that in 40 census tracts in the City of New Orleans, 80 percent or more of working residents were employed in low-wage jobs, based on an analysis of the US Census Bureau’s Longitudinal Employer-Household Dynamics data. The report highlighted several policy options for alleviating working poverty including policies and regulations to raise wages and ensure that work is legally remunerated.

The report was released in mid-2015, taking advantage of the enhanced interest in the city created by the 10th anniversary of Katrina and ultimately received at least 16 media mentions, including coverage in Next City and the New York Times.

Advocates from Stand with Dignity of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, the Congress of Day Laborers, Black Youth Project 100 NOLA, and members of local unions organized a rally on the steps of City Hall and then spoke in front of City Council, highlighting The Data Center’s report as evidence of the urgency of new action on the minimum wage.

Certainly influenced by The Data Center’s report and campaign, the New Orleans City Council approved a law in August 2015 requiring most city contractors and recipients of grants to pay a “living wage” of $10.55 per hour and provide a minimum of seven paid sick day by a unanimous vote. This was a critical policy win because, while New Orleanians had voted for a “living wage” in early 2002, the Louisiana Supreme Court declared that vote unconstitutional in September of that year. Thus, the city was limited in its options for increasing wages, and while the Mayor had increased all city employees’ wages to a minimum of $10.10 in 2014, expanding this policy to employees of city contractors required action by the Council.

In addition to its influence on the Council’s vote, the report prompted Kingsley House, one of the largest nonprofit organizations in New Orleans, to voluntarily increase their wages to ensure all members of their staff were receiving a living wage. The Data Center’s reputation for reliable information and clear communication of data provided key evidence for these decisions that improved the economic situation for low-income workers. They plan to continue to evolve the New Orleans Index to address other emerging issues facing the city.

This story was written by staff at the Urban Institute, drawn from documents from the New Orleans City Council. The Data Center is the New Orleans partner in the National Neighborhood Indicators Partnership, a learning network in 30 cities coordinated by the Urban Institute. All partners ensure communities have access to data and the skills to use information to advance equity and well-being across neighborhoods.

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