BEAM: State Could Use Wake-Up Call

No one wants to begin a new year on a down note. However, a heavy dose of reality might shake our governor, legislators, other public policymakers and the general population out of their false sense of security.

Those of us who have been around nearly eight decades haven’t seen much progress in critical areas over that long time span. The Advocate in a Christmas Day story notes that the U.S. Census Bureau reports only 21 percent of Louisiana adults have earned a bachelor’s degree or higher, ranking the state in 46th position. The only states with worse rankings are West Virginia, Arkansas, Mississippi and Kentucky.

Massachusetts is ranked No. 1 with 38.1 percent of its adults having earned bachelor degrees or higher.

The news for Louisiana gets worse. The state’s median income of $41,700 is the seventh lowest in the nation. The 20.4 percent of the state population living below the poverty level is the third-highest in the country, the newspaper said. The federal poverty level for a family of four is $22,314 annually.

One of the best measures of poverty in the state is the fact 66 percent of school age children qualify for either a free or reduced lunch. The Advocate notes that poverty also leads to low-birth weights and high infant mortality rates.

Louisiana has long been recognized as the state with the highest incarceration rate. The Institute for Economics and Peace, a nonprofit research organization, said it also has the eighth-worse violent crime rate, the fourth-worse rate of gun suicides and the nation’s worst murder rate.

Pretty grim statistics and there will be those who will try to discredit the findings. We have always gotten that kind of reaction from policymakers who have failed to face reality in Louisiana’s past.

Elliott Stonecipher of Shreveport, a demographer who studies population trends, has some more bad news. Louisiana’s population has grown only 8.6 percent over the last 32 years, while the nation’s population grew by 38.6 percent.

“Since Dave Treen’s 1980 inauguration as governor, America’s population grew 4.5 times faster than Louisiana’s,” Stonecipher said.

That should come as no surprise. We have lost two congressmen over that same period of time.

Louisiana did gain 68,521 residents over the last two years, but Stonecipher says that is still behind the nation’s growth rate. The state’s unemployment rate is low and its economic development record is good, but tax revenues are down. So what’s wrong?

“It doesn’t seem a stretch to surmise that the continuing disappearance of tax revenue is to a notable degree related to our longtime, giant-sucking sound loss of residents who can and might pay those taxes,” Stonecipher said.

No one will be surprised to learn that a better education for the state’s young people is the best answer to what ails Louisiana. And we do appear to be making some gains in that direction at the elementary and secondary school levels. However, getting a college degree has become more difficult and costly because of continuing budget reductions in higher education.

Joe May, president of the Louisiana Community College and Technical System, told the newspaper the state needs to increase the current 80,000 enrollment at community colleges.

“We need to be on track for 160,000 enrollment in order to have the type of meaningful impact we’re looking for,” May said. “If we can’t keep pace with employers, we will see our poverty rates grow.”

Southwest Louisiana has quickly become the focus area of the state because of its pending economic boom related to billions of dollars being spent on new and expanding industries in this area.

Jim Purcell, state commissioner of higher education, said, “Lake Charles is experiencing growth. They are going to need construction workers, pipefitters and welders. Schools like McNeese and Sowela need to get on that, and fast.”

Louisiana didn’t really get into the community college game until Mike Foster became governor in 1995. He had the kind of vision we needed. However, the system — like higher education — has had to increase tuition over the last five years because of budget cuts.

Purcell said when students can get up to 60 percent of their financial needs taken care of, they have a much higher chance of graduating from college. The Legislature needs to concentrate on this issue during its upcoming spring session.

The governor and Legislature have continually refused to change the TOPS scholarship program, but many of those funds are going to students whose parents can afford to pay higher tuition. Why not do some means testing and redirect some of that money to high school graduates who can’t afford to attend the state’s community colleges?

It’s time for a wake-up call. What Louisiana has been doing hasn’t improved its rankings in those areas mentioned earlier. The state needs bolder thinking so that the high school graduates in low-income families have a better shot at being trained for the good-paying jobs soon to be available in Southwest Louisiana and elsewhere. If we don’t act quickly, higher education graduates and residents of other states are going to come in and take those quality jobs.

Jim Beam, the retired editor of the American Press, has covered people and politics for more than five decades. Contact him at 337-494-4025 or [email protected].

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