Monday, January 09, 2006


Footprint or Bootprint?
Thoughts on the Political Uses of Population Estimates in New Orleans

Lance Hill
January 6, 2005

How many people live in New Orleans today? Some government leaders and media organizations are using demographers’ estimates that 100,000-150,000 people have returned to the city. While these surprisingly high numbers can encourage optimism and recovery, we also must acknowledge that population estimates are laden with political meaning. Estimates of repopulation trends can and are being used validate and legitimize recovery policies for housing, education, and the local economy.

In the coming years, these polices will disproportionately affect New Orleans flood-ravaged black neighborhoods which were hardest hit by the hurricanes. The small group of policy planners who are currently debating and finalizing the city’s future blueprint are doing so in the absence of nearly 80% of New Orleans previous black inhabitants. Working outside the democratic process, these planners need public legitimacy. High population estimates and rosy repopulation trends create the impression that a sufficient number of residents have returned to justify making long-term decisions today. Many planners are advocating plans to reduce the city’s population, using the expression “a smaller footprint.” The hard reality is that this means some black neighborhoods will not be allowed to rebuild. For advocates of the reduced population, it has become crucial that black New Orleanians don’t view the “footprint” as a “bootprint.”

Most demographers agree that there are no reliable methods for determining how many people have returned to housing units made uninhabitable by wind or floodwaters. We should be mindful that all the total population estimates contain some potentially misleading data. All current population estimates include the 56,782 residents of the Algiers community, which sits on the west bank of the Mississippi river and which experienced little or no flooding. Algiers was also exempted from some of the martial law and mandatory evacuation orders and was re-opened to evacuees months before other sections of the city. Virtually all of the homes were immediately habitable once utilities were restored.

Demographers also include in their totals the 40,000 people who lived in the un-flooded sections of the Uptown corridor where, as in Algiers, most homes were left habitable. That 100,000 people have returned to their homes tells us little about repopulation trends or progress in the flooded areas where 120,000 housing units were made unlivable, and which was home to most of the city’s black and poor population. All that current population estimates tell us is that, for the most part, the people who have returned are the ones who never had to leave in the first place. Including these 100,000 residents into figures used to gauge the effectiveness of the recovery process is of little value for evaluating recovery policies and cannot serve as a useful predictor of future repopulation trends.

Where, then, can we find reliable population estimates? First, it is unlikely that businesses, utility companies, and government officials and agencies who want to promote the impression of growth will provide population estimates that reveal real racial and economic disparities or a general lack of progress. But if we want to create an effective and equitable recovery, we need to know the bad news as well as the good news.

In the final analysis, the most reliable method for measuring recovery effectiveness and equity requires multiple data sources, including survey research, analysis of consumer trends, and usage of educational and social services.

Public education usage is a revealing case in point. There is no question that students are returning to schools. But consider that virtually all of the predominantly white private schools in New Orleans will reopen in January to predicted enrollments of 75% or higher. Contrast those numbers to the harsh reality that, if we exclude the public school students who returned to Algiers and Uptown, only about 7% of the 65,000 students who attended New Orleans pubic schools are returning to enroll in January. That the Orleans Parish School Board plans to terminate all but 61 of the 7,000 former school employees speaks volumes about who will find it convenient and hospitable to return in the near future.

It would be shortsighted to assume that the working and unemployed poor will not return to New Orleans, even if there is no affordable housing. New Orleans is one of the few major cities in the United States that does not have a public vagrancy law (it was overturned by federal courts several years ago). Homeless people have the right to sleep in public spaces and parks. In December of 2006, FEMA rent supports will end across the nation and tens of thousands of homeless New Orleanians will likely attempt return to their hometown where their only family support networks exist. Without adequate planning, New Orleans could become home to thousands of homeless living in sprawling tent cities in the parks and massive squatters communities in abandoned housing.

If we are to build a better city, we need to have an accurate idea of not only who has come home, but also who has not and why.

Lance Hill, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Southern Institute for Education and Research
Tulane University


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Anonymous said...

Those 100k figures are the ones I heard the two times I've been down since the flood. I couldn't even imagine how you'd come up with those figures in the first place; if you hadn't seen people coming in and out the house where I was staying, it would have been difficult to know anyone was there. But to find out that one half to one third of the population of "New Orleans" is in Algiers, well, that just some bullshit, alright.