The Economy in Numbers:

New Orleans by the Numbers

By Peter Wagner and Susan Edwards

Rank of New Orleans compared to other large cities with population over 100,000:

Percentage of population that is African-American: 5th

Percentage of population in poverty: 8th

Rank of Louisiana compared to other states:

Percent of population living in poverty areas: 1st

Percent of population born in state of residence: 1st

Lowest median household income: 3rd

Portion of households headed by single women with children: 2nd

Portion of workforce that is unemployed: 3rd

This article is from the March/April 2006 issue of Dollars & Sense: The Magazine of Economic Justice available at

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This article is from the March/April 2006 issue of Dollars & Sense magazine.

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The city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana were in trouble long before Hurricane Katrina flooded the city and long before the Federal Emergency Management Agency decided that the director's dinner engagements were more important than the plight of hurricane victims running out of food in the Superdome.

The tables below compare the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans to the city as a whole, to the state of Louisiana, and to the United States. The Lower Ninth Ward, very poor and almost entirely Black, was one of the most heavily damaged areas of the city. Its residents, along with tens of thousands of other New Orleanians, have been dispersed around the country.

The glimpse that Census data offer of the city's demographics may offer at least a partial explanation for why the powers-that-be don't seem too upset about what is beginning to look like the permanent dispersal of Katrina's survivors.

United States 12%
Louisiana 32%
New Orleans 67%
Lower Ninth Ward 99%
Source: U.S. Census SF1 P3


Only four large cities (Gary, Ind.; Detroit, Mich.; Birmingham, Ala.; and Jackson, Miss.) have a larger portion of their population that is Black than New Orleans. The Lower Ninth Ward is 99% Black.

Own their home
Total Population Blacks
United States 66% 49%
Louisiana 68% 53%
New Orleans 47% 43%
Lower Ninth Ward 59% 57%
Source: U.S. Census SF1 H14 SF1 H11B

Home ownership

Black people are less likely than the general population to own their own homes, but home ownership in the Lower Ninth Ward was more prevalent than in either New Orleans as a whole or among Blacks generally. If the government refuses to help the uninsured residents of the Lower Ninth Ward rebuild, it will have destroyed what was actually a shining example of Bush's often touted "ownership society."

Percent of population Place of residence, 5 years ago
born in the state they live in now In same house In same county/ parish In same state
United States 60% 54% 79% 89%
Louisiana 79% 59% 84% 93%
New Orleans 77% 57% 85% 91%
Lower Ninth Ward 92% 74% 97% 98%
Source: U.S. Census SF3 P21 SF3 P24 SF3 P24 SF3 P24

Birthplace & Place of residence five years ago

The United States is generally a mobile society; people move quite frequently. Louisiana, New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward are exceptions to that rule. Despite all the social ills in Louisiana and New Orleans, residents had deep roots and were invested in their communities.

Education (Adults 25+)
Percent without H.S. diploma or GED Percent with High School / GED only Percent with at least bachelor's degree
United States 20% 29% 24%
Louisiana 25% 32% 19%
New Orleans 25% 23% 26%
Lower Ninth Ward 40% 29% 7%
Source: U.S. Census SF3 P37 SF3 P37 SF3 P37


Residents of New Orleans and of Louisiana are more likely to lack a high school education than residents of the United States as a whole. But New Orleans residents are more likely to have a college education than residents of either the state of Louisiana or the entire country.

However, New Orleans did not invest in all its communities equally. Forty percent of the adult residents of the Lower Ninth Ward lack a high school diploma or GED.

Median household income Percent of population in poverty Percent of population living at less than 1/2 poverty line Percent of population living at more than 2x poverty line Percent of children in poverty Percent of Adults 65+ in poverty
United States$41,994 12%6%70%17%10%
Louisiana$32,566 20%9%60%27%17%
New Orleans$27,133 28%15%50%41%19%
Lower Ninth Ward$19,918 36%16%34%48%31%
Source: U.S. CensusSF3 P53SF3 P87SF3 P88SF3 P88SF3 P87SF3 P87

Income & Poverty

The people of New Orleans are poor, and in the Lower Ninth Ward even more so. Poverty is a confusing concept that requires some ex-planation. The federal government sets one national poverty line that is supposed to indicate, for families of various sizes and for individuals living alone, whether they are making enough money to meet basic needs. Based on a 1960s model in which food represented 1/3 of a family's budget, the poverty line was calculated as three times the cost of meeting minimum nutritional needs. People with incomes below that line are determined to be in poverty.

The poverty line is adjusted annually based on inflation, but the model itself has never been revised. The calculation does not take into account regional differences in the cost of living, the additional expenses that families now face (such as child care), or disproportionate cost increases for essentials like housing, heating, and transportation. (See "Ask Dr. Dollar", Dollars & Sense, January/February 2006).

Because the poverty line is set so low, those living at less than 50% of poverty are in extreme, perhaps life threatening, poverty. Even people earning twice the poverty line may barely be getting by. For that reason, many federal and state programs use a multiple of the poverty line (often 125%, 150%, or 185%) to determine eligibility for assistance, and at least one-Massachusetts' Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program-uses 200% of poverty for eligibility. Unfortunately, the Census Bureau does not provide data for poverty ratios above 200%, which would be gin to give us a more useful measure of affluence and discretionary income.

Finally, poverty correlates strongly with age. While the number of children remains frighteningly high, the expansion of assistance pro-grams for the elderly over the last few decades has reduced the percentage of older adults in poverty.

Public Assistance
Percent of households receiving cash assist. Percent of households in poverty that do not receive cash assist.
United States 3%87%
New Orleans 3%90%
Louisiana 5%87%
Lower Ninth Ward 8%85%
Source: U.S. Census SF3 HCT25SF3 HCT25

Public assistance

The expansion of the social safety net and cash public assistance programs are responsible for the tremendous decline in the number of elderly living in poverty. The shredding of the social safety net for poor children and adults under 65 has left almost 11 million house-holds with incomes below the poverty line, but with no access to cash assistance.

Unemployed (civilian labor force, 16+)
Total White Black
United States 6% 5% 11%
Louisiana 7% 5% 14%
New Orleans9% 4% 13%
Lower Ninth Ward 14% 0% 14%
Source: U.S. Census SF3 P43SF3 P150ASF3 P150B


Census data aren't as timely as Bureau of Labor Statistics data, but they are the only available source for data at the neighborhood level, such as the Lower Ninth Ward.

No vehicle available
Total White Black
United States 10% 8% 24%
Louisiana 12% 6% 25%
New Orleans9% 4% 13%
Lower Ninth Ward 32% 0% 33%
Source: U.S. CensusSF3 H44SF3 HCT33ASF3 HCT33B

No vehicle available

City-dwellers often do not have cars because they can rely on public transportation, and poor people rarely have cars because they can-not afford them. In the days after Katrina, pundits blamed the residents of New Orleans for not evacuating; they should have looked at the facts to see whether evacuation was even possible.

Peter Wagner is executive director of the Prison Policy Initiative. Susan Edwards is a government documents librarian at Amherst College. Together they are writing a book on how to use Census data for research and advocacy.