Pulling It Together: A Recovery Raises Expectations Too

New Orleans is a city still struggling with the aftermath of Katrina and the levee breaks. The people of New Orleans feel that the nation and the federal government have largely forgotten them. Those are the results of our 2008 survey of the people of New Orleans, the second in a series we are doing to track progress in the recovery from the perspective of the residents of the city themselves.

As the head of a research organization that has put out hundreds of surveys over the years I know that it is in the nature of things that attention will focus most on the more negative findings, which are very real, but as is often the case, the glass can be seen as half empty or half full. There were positive findings in the survey that should not be overlooked.

We found that a majority of New Orleans residents see the recovery moving in the right direction and are optimistic about the future, even as they told us they are unhappy with the pace of the recovery in virtually every area and are especially dissatisfied with progress on housing and crime. This contrasts sharply with the nation as a whole, where polls show the vast majority of Americans see the country going in the wrong direction. The optimism for the future we found in our survey gives New Orleans and the recovery a foundation of hope to build on.

We found that while majorities saw little or no progress in affordable housing, crime, medical facilities, strengthening the schools, bringing back jobs and rebuilding destroyed neighborhoods, significant minorities did see progress in these areas and in one area, repairing levees, pumps and firewalls, a solid majority see progress.

It is also useful to remember that things were not so great by many objective measures in New Orleans before Katrina. About one in four New Orleans residents and nearly four in ten children lived below the federal poverty line. The public schools were weak. Low-income people relied on a revered but antiquated public hospital, and the city, like the state, came in near the bottom on most health measures. These are hard things to turn around. We did not survey in other big cities with large low-income populations, but I strongly suspect that the residents there would give us a similar report card on crime, housing, and jobs and might be less hopeful, because unlike New Orleans, they do not have a recovery effort underway. One poll found that 51 percent of Los Angeles residents said their city was “seriously off track,” and 44 percent of the people of the District of Columbia said the same thing.

New Orleans residents also report modest improvements in race relations since our survey in 2006. They say the most important divide in the city is about income, not race. And they say the influx of immigrant workers into the city is a good thing, no doubt because of the labor needed to aid in the rebuilding effort. Race has long been an issue in New Orleans, as in the nation, and documenting a perception of progress on this difficult issue is positive news.

Finally, while we found that the number of residents saying they are considering leaving New Orleans is up from 12 percent in 2006 to 22 percent today, we discovered that fully 90 percent of New Orleans current residents lived there when Katrina hit . These residents are not newcomers and clearly have deep ties to the city. The biggest challenge will be retaining young adults and younger professionals, and convincing them that New Orleans is a good place to build careers and raise children, but there is a core population with a strong commitment to the city who are not planning to leave.

On the streets of New Orleans grassroots groups are working hard to make things better, as are public servants at all levels, no matter the red tape and institutional obstacles that get in their way. The unique challenge in New Orleans is that expectations may have been raised as the city suffered a historic disaster, and in the aftermath, its people had hopes for an equally historic rebuilding and recovery effort. The question now is whether the optimism our survey found will dissipate or even turn sour if the pace of the recovery does not quicken and frustration grows. Let us hope that when we conduct our next survey in about 18 months we will find that the people of New Orleans are still optimistic about the future of the city and are feeling a little less forgotten by their fellow Americans.

— A version of this piece was also published in the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

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