Katrina may have been a harbinger

A year after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the Gulf Coast, I thought I’d take a look back (like everyone else) and see how we as a country and as an industry have fared since. In doing so I came across a recent study by the Institute for Women’s Policy Research titled “The Women of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast: Disadvantages and Key Assets for Recovery, Part II. Gender, Race and Class in the Labor Market,” which confirmed some of my apprehensions.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, cited in the study, the unemployment rate in July 2006 among returned evacuees was 4.2 percent — compared with 23 percent among those who had not returned to their homes. A U.S. Census Bureau survey confirms that the New Orleans metro area has become more affluent and more white/less Black, as poorer people have been unable to return.

These developments have had a disproportionate impact on low-income women, who were a hardworking part of the region before the storms and an integral part of its economy. In New Orleans, 45.5 percent of poor women worked, as did 46.8 percent of poor women in Biloxi-Pascagoula, compared with the national average of 41.4 percent — and despite lower wages.

“Working poor women in this region, despite working harder than those in other parts of the country, were generally even more poorly compensated,” remarked Avis Jones-DeWeever, program director and co-author of the report. But with more women than men leaving the region after the storms, they’ll have to be offered “better opportunities for good jobs, along with child care and schools for the children,” to be enticed into returning, she added.

Not much chance of that, though. Indeed, judging by the recently published results of the AFL-CIO’s annual Ask a Working Woman survey, the impoverished women of New Orleans are hardly alone in their needs.

First on the respondents’ list of concerns is affordable health care, cited by 97 percent of the 26,000 women who took the on-line survey this past summer. Such concern crosses all ages and races and across all levels of education. Right behind it is anxiety over the cost of living, cited by 95 percent.

We’re (I participated in the survey) concerned about retirement and whether we’ll have enough to live on. We’re worried about the cost of higher education, even if we don’t have school-age children, because of the growing importance of continuing our own educations. As for those who do have school-age children, will they even be able to afford a higher education? An article I just read described something called “enrollment management,” which manipulates tuition costs not to help the neediest students but to create a student population that will enhance a college’s prestige and rank. So much for extending a helping hand to those who really need it.

But these issues are not just about women, for they affect all of us. And while it’s appropriate to ensure that the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast is fair and equitable, we need to ensure that it’s not just the Gulf Coast educational system that is fixed, but that all children in our society get proper schooling. The good jobs that must return to New Orleans must be available to anyone in this country who wants to work — jobs that pay fair and equal pay for equal work, jobs that come with health insurance and paid medical leave, jobs that provide dependable pensions for when workers can no longer work.

These are the things that made this country great and still entice others to come here.

Debbie Thomas is human rights director for The Newspaper Guild-CWA (www.newsguild.org). This article originally appeared in The Guild Reporter.