Tag Archives: poverty

Lawrence Powell, The Accidental City, and Walking the Bridge of the Enjoyment Culture

Lawrence Powell

New Orleans    Speaking in the Fair Grinds Coffeehouse Common Space in a book signing event organized by the Faubourg St. John branch of the Maple Street Bookstore, Lawrence Powell, Tulane University professor conceded that when he first agreed to write what he hoped would be 300-400 history of New Orleans in 2006 in the aftermath of Katrina, he was “not bearish on a comeback” for New Orleans.  Pulling a reference from HBO’s Treme, he added that he wasn’t to the point of the John Goodman character, which is a signal for ranting and raving in the doom of depression and post-traumatic stress syndrome, but he wasn’t that far off.  His surprisingly hot seller, The Accidental City:  Improvising New Orleans, which retells the story of the founding of the city with both a different slant and a 21st century understanding of the inordinate role of economic actors and real estate speculation , along with time itself and observations since the storm, have now turned him around to “cautious optimism.”

The heart of the book goes to finding an answer to the question posed by former House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert after Katrina which essentially asked what fools would locate a city where New Orleans was built.  Powell’s book tells the stories of those “fools,” and the disputes between France, its Francophone wheelers and dealers from Canada, and other countries, John Law, one of the shrewdest economic barons of the early 18th century, and Bienville, which pushed and shoved between what became the city’s location between Lake Pontchartrain through Bayou St. John to the River, and the location preferred by Gulf Coast and other interests at Bayou Manchac between the lakes.  In Powell’s version Bienville “seized the time” to found the city almost 300 years ago (1718), and held on as the Law a strategy of force marching a tobacco based, plantation economy in Louisiana that sweltered and struggled as a business model.

It says something about New Orleans that looking forward could entail so much looking backwards that Powell’s book would create so much interest.  David Carr, the Times’ media columnist makes a similar point in an odd “on this hand and then on the other” vacillating piece today as he discusses the coffeehouse culture of the city and the daily arguments on the news that frequently include brandishing a copy of the Times-Picayune as pointer and potential weapon.  Even in the column, Carr is unable to see which trees warranted chopping or not, since all of his views are blinded by the forest of challenges for newspapers to find a new business model.

Powell more astutely comes down clearly and firmly on the challenges that face New Orleans (and many cities!) rebuilding that are deeply planted at dividing lines of race and inequities of income, jobs, and opportunity.  He left the crowd at Fair Grinds Coffeehouse with a comment that perhaps what he called the “enjoyment culture,” meaning the attractive and addictive life style and joie de vivre of New Orleans might actually be the bridge between these great divides and hold the secret as well to the long term success and survival of the city for the next 300 years.  Readers still moving past the first chapters of The Accidental City were desperately trying to speed Powell up on his work on that next book!

Lawrence Powell talking to the Crowd at Fair Grinds Common Space

The Accidental City


Embracing Your Percentage

New Orleans  The Times ran a story that tried to put a face on the 1% and encourage us to embrace our inner percentage.

There are two ways to approach looking at these numbers around the country, and both perspectives can offer some insight to US political views.

On the one hand it lends some vague sense of understanding of why such whacky percentages of Americans sometimes respond that they are richer than anyone factually might believe them to be or in other words why so many modest income American families still identify with the rich.  There are some people who might look at the household income figures in their communities where $200000 or $300000 or even $400000 might indicate the upper elite of the 1%, and say to themselves and to others like pollsters and Republican politicians, “hey, I can get there too with some luck or a break or two.”

On the other hand people like me are amazed that that the real meaning of such numbers proves how widespread relative poverty is in these same communities.  If you can be a one-percenter in Laredo at hardly $200,000, since it is a percentage that means people on the whole are desperately poor in Laredo and something should be done about it!  In my New Orleans $362,000 puts you there, and that’s a lot of money, and I’m not sure how folks would be making that here.  Little Rock is only a bit over $300,000, similar to Billings, Montana or Albuquerque or Boise or Panama City, all of which speaks a bit to the slightly more populist nature of some (much?) of the South and West.

The real story is not in the shading of the percentages but in the gap as the Times story indicates, as well as advantages that come from both chance (birth) and structural rigidity (access to job networks):

The top 1 percent of earners in a given year receives just under a fifth of the country’s pretax income, about double their share 30 years ago. They pay just over a fourth of all federal taxes, according to the Tax Policy Center. In 2007, they accounted for about 30 percent of philanthropic giving, according to Federal Reserve data. They received 22 percent of their income from capital gains, compared with 2 percent for everybody else.   Most 1 percenters were born with socioeconomic advantages, which helps explain why the 1 percent is more likely than other Americans to have jobs, according to census data. They work longer hours, being three times more likely than the 99 percent to work more than 50 hours a week, and are more likely to be self-employed. Married 1 percenters are just as likely as other couples to have two incomes, but men are the big breadwinners, earning 75 percent of the money, compared with 64 percent of the income in other households.

As interesting to me was playing with the formula that allowed a family to find their “place in the percentage.”   For example $100,000 family income puts a family in the top 21%, and if that family were fortunate enough to be living in New Mexico, where I have long thought about living such a family could be in the top 12% or in Montana, where we like to camp and wet a line, you would be in the top 14%.  Of course you still have to figure out how to bring $100,000 into your family, but I’m just saying…

When I left ACORN in 2008, starting wages were about $26,500 for a field organizer, which even today in 2012 would put an organizer ahead of the bottom 25%.  If they were living with another organizer or bunking in and sharing household costs, boom, they would have been in the top 50%!  We always would hear about how low our wages were, but mostly we were hearing from funders who lived in places like New York, where more than a half-million puts you in the 1%, or San Francisco where that starting wage would have put you in the bottom 17%, or Boston in the bottom 20%.

I can remember starting ACORN in Arkansas and finding that 70% of the people made less than $7500 in 1970.   Now to get to that 70% for household income, you would be knocking on the doors of families making about $100,000 around the USA.  A lot has changed in 40 years, and it’s not just inflation.

As I say, embracing your “percentage,” really depends on where you stand and how far up or down you gap is huge and growing, and the distribution is way out of plumb.

Ps.  Want to figure your place in the percentage?  Here’s the link to the calculator.