In A Portrait of Louisiana 2020, social scientists define and measure the state’s “human development index.” Their findings provide a blueprint for ensuring a more equitable future.

In the late 1970s, when the federal government began considering where exactly to construct the final original stretch of Interstate 49 in Central Louisiana, it first had to answer a daunting question: Should the highway loop around the city of Alexandria and be built on cheap farmland 15 miles outside of town? Or should it instead cut directly through the city’s downtown, the option favored by the mayor and the Chamber of Commerce crowd?

On May 1, 1980, officials announced their decision. 16 years later, when the ribbon was finally cut on a 16.6-mile section of I-49 named after Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., taxpayers had spent more than $44 million to build the single mile that was expected to result in the revitalization of Alexandria’s sleepy downtown.

The working theory, put simply, was If you build it, they will come.

Today, 40 years after that fateful decision, people are finally showing up again (at least they were, before the pandemic), but whether that’s because of the interstate or in spite of it remains a matter of dispute. Like many American cities at the time, Alexandria spent its own capital to prop up suburban sprawl and predominately white, ticky-tacky neighborhoods.

During the past four decades, the city more than tripled in geographic size despite its population remaining essentially the same. Meanwhile, the federal government bulldozed through majority-Black neighborhoods to make way for the interstate. By one estimate, the city lost nearly 90% of its historic inner-core as a consequence.

Of course, it wasn’t the first place in Louisiana to bulldoze through majority Black neighborhoods and splice itself in half by building an interstate through town.

That said, it could have been worse: Alexandria could have easily repeated the mistakes made 110 miles north, in Shreveport, where I-49 created an impenetrable and permanent barrier, a living monument to segregation. But because of the stubborn insistence of Union Pacific, unlike what occurred in Shreveport, the federal government reluctantly agreed to construct a series of underpasses in Alexandria, which didn’t necessarily make things better, only less bad.

Aerial of Downtown Alexandria, La. and I-49 on the day the new interstate officially opened with the completion of the Jackson Street Underpass, Aug. 31, 1995. Credit: The Town Talk, transformed: Bayou Brief.

In the 187-page report A Portrait of Louisiana 2020: Human Development in An Age of Uncertainty, Kristen Lewis and her colleagues at the Social Science Research Council, an independent nonprofit organization, highlight the construction of I-49 through Shreveport to illustrate the ways in which public policy can result in vast inequities, even between people who live directly across the street from one another.

The section on Shreveport is titled after the Charles Dickens classic “A Tale of Two Cities,” but in fairness to Shreveport, the full report makes it abundantly clear that this is really a tale of two Louisianas.

Read the full report here.

A Portrait of Louisiana 2020, which was published only a few days before this year’s election, is a part of the SSRC’s Measure of America program, made possible with funding from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation and J.P. Morgan Chase. This year’s report is actually a follow-up to a similar study about Louisiana from 2009. (Measure of America has also published a pair of national reports as well as two reports on California and another about Mississippi). There’s a lot to unpack, but first, it’s important to understand what makes its methodology different.

“(The report) uses the human development approach and the American Human Development Index (HDI) to explore well-being and access to opportunity among different groups of Louisianans,” Measure of America explains on its website. “It examines a range of critical issues, including health, education, living standards, incarceration, youth disconnection, residential segregation, and inequality. And it makes recommendations about how to expand people’s opportunities, build greater human security, and help communities recover from the Covid-19 pandemic.”

The underlying premise is simple: Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is an imprecise and unreliable metric in defining a community’s health, well-being, and educational and economic opportunities; it can be especially misleading when making comparisons. Even though this seems obvious—the enormous income inequality gap in the United States means that a state like Louisiana can be both a rich state and a poor state— our conception of “quality of life” is too often informed almost exclusively by GDP. HDI measures “three fundamental human development dimensions: a long and heathy life, access to knowledge, and a decent standard of living.”

Money is a factor, but it’s not the only factor.

Louisiana has made some gains since the previous study in 2009, improving from a score of 3.92 out of 10 on the HDI to 4.35, which is largely due to improvements in educational attainment.

Courtesy: Measure of America

11 years ago, one out of every five adults in Louisiana lacked a high school diploma or GED; today, the number is closer to one out of seven. Preschool enrollment in Louisiana is above the national average, and notably, Black children are more likely to be enrolled than white children, which the study attributes to the success of “Head Start and other publicly funded preschool programs in low-income Black communities.”

Importantly, however, Louisiana’s HDI score is still a full point under the national average. There are a few reasons: The state lags behind the rest of the nation in its share of adults who have attained a bachelor’s degree (24.3% in Louisiana, 32.6% nationwide). Women in Louisiana earn an average of $16,000 less than their male counterparts and $5,000 less than the national average, despite the fact that their “Education Index” score is higher than men. After briefly relinquishing the title to Oklahoma, Louisiana is now once again the prison capital of the world. Put another way, Louisiana incarcerates more of its residents per capita than anywhere else on the planet. Louisiana also has the fourth-highest “youth disconnection” rate in the country; the rate approximates the proportion of those between the ages of 16 to 24 who are neither enrolled in school or otherwise employed in a full-time job. Access to health care, particularly mental health, is woefully deficient.

The study’s key findings are unlikely to be surprising to most Louisianians, though it is instructive to know with some degree of specificity how the state compares with the rest of the nation. (Not good).

That said, the most significant and insightful portions of A Portrait of Louisiana 2020 concern the historical and policy underpinnings of the gaps between Blacks and whites, which brings us back to the construction of I-49.

A Portrait of Louisiana 2020 mentions the development of Shreveport and the way the city is bisected by I-49 to underscore the staggering differences between two historic neighborhoods, the majority Black Caddo Heights neighborhood on the west side of the interstate and the majority white South Highlands on the east.

“South Highlands has a life expectancy of 83 years, 72.3 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree, and the typical worker makes $60,980. Over 85 percent of residents are white,” Lewis writes. “Across the highway in Caddo Heights, the average life expectancy is 70.5 years, 7.8 percent of adults have a bachelor’s degree, and median personal earnings are just $16,853. Over 90 percent of residents are Black.”

Used with permission of Measure of America.

The only way to “cross between these two neighborhoods,” the study explains, “(is) on roads marking their northern and southern edges, about two miles apart.”

The construction of the interstate in Shreveport in the 1980s only explains part of the story. After all, as Shreveporters know, I-49 largely traced the existing footprint of the railroad lines, as it did in Alexandria as well.

There’s another insidious reason for the vast differences in quality of life between Caddo Heights and South Highlands.

“These deep disparities,” the report explains, “are a consequence of residential segregation and are often aligned with features of the built environment like Interstate 49.” Residential segregation

“Residential segregation” doesn’t happen by accident. While the term “redlining” didn’t become a part of the lexicon in 1960, it’d already been in practice for decades.

From the passage of the National Housing Act of 1934 until the enactment of the Equal Credit Opportunity Act in 1974, it was a function of federal law and of policies that effectively prevented Black families from securing a home loan insured by the Federal Housing Administration. In 1938, the FHA enshrined the practice in its underwriting manual. “FHA appraisal manuals instructed loan originators to steer clear of areas with ‘inharmonious racial groups and recommended that municipalities enact racially restrictive zoning ordinances as well as covenants running with the land that prohibited Black owners,'” Michael Schill of New York University and Susan Wachter of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania explained in a 2002 report.

The staggering discrepancies in Shreveport were not the consequence of the free market. This didn’t happen organically. It’s the result of decades and decades of disinvestment and neglect in one neighborhood and investment and infrastructure improvements in another, all done at the direction or with the blessing of the government.

Here’s a redlining map of the City of Shreveport shortly before the Second World War (reds and yellows signify “Not Desirable;” greens and blues are “Desirable”).

Redlined map of Shreveport (circa 1935-1949). Used with permission of Measure of America.

This wasn’t inevitable. As Lewis and her team repeatedly emphasize, the state’s woes are all the result of choices, usually by those in positions of power. Whether or not Louisiana acts to fix what’s broken is also a choice.

Shreveport’s tale of two neighborhoods illustrates the connections between multigenerational poverty and a community’s access to capital and political power, and there are similar stories that can be told about cities across the state. Before the government bulldozed through inner cities to make way for the interstate, it codified ways to protect the property interests of whites, while preventing those interests for Black Louisianians. And before there was redlining, there was the horrific injustice and systematic exploitation of slavery.

The lasting legacy of slavery is slightly more difficult to illustrate on a map, but it’s not entirely impossible. Lewis and her team at Measure of America looked at which parishes in Louisiana have the lowest HDI scores and which had the highest per-capita enslaved populations.

The correlations were hard to ignore.

This is a map from 1860 identifying the parishes in black with the highest enslaved populations:

Today, East Carroll Parish’s HDI score ranks at the very bottom among the state’s 64 parishes (well, technically, it ranked 63rd, because the study was unable to obtain enough data on Webster Parish), earning an abysmal 1.49 out of 10. Lake Providence—the tiny town that serves as the seat of East Carroll Parish—was once named “the most unequal place in America” by CNN. Approximately 73% of children in East Carroll Parish live below the poverty line. Its Education Index score, 1.28 out of 10, also ranks dead-last in Louisiana.

“As life expectancy decreases, the poverty rate tends to increase,” Lewis notes. “(The) five parishes with the shortest life expectancies—LaSalle, Caldwell, East Carroll, West Carroll, and Catahoula—all have poverty rates above 20 percent.” Claiborne Parish ranks the lowest in median personal income ($19,470).

I decided to put together a map of the parishes with the lowest HDI scores (in yellow), and while obviously there were fewer parishes in 1860 than there are today, the region of Louisiana that once had the highest enslaved populations just so happens to be the same one identified by A Portrait of Louisiana 2020.

Three weeks ago, I spoke with Lewis about the report, and, among other things, I told her I was somewhat surprised that none of the parishes that comprise the corridor of South Louisiana known as “Cancer Alley” were in the bottom tier. After all, as the 1860 map illustrates, those parishes had similar proportions of people living under slavery, and there’s no question that Cancer Alley continues to struggle with extreme poverty. (To be clear, the report does contain a brief section on Cancer Alley).

What makes the Delta parishes unique?

There are a few reasons, she explained, and they all relate to the methodology used in determining a place’s Human Development Index score. Both regions are plagued by poverty; that’s undeniable. But the Delta parishes in northeast Louisiana are significantly more rural and isolated, and that means its residents have less access to healthcare, fewer educational opportunities, and a much more limited job market.

Although I’ve focused on the report’s findings on systemic racism and the legacy of slavery, that’s just one of many aspects that inform Measure of America’s analysis.

Read the full report here.

Policymakers, elected officials, and social and civil justice advocates should take the time to read the full report. There are also a handful of Republican state legislators in particular who need to be reminded that the checks they receive from the government carry a work requirement. For far too long, the state legislature has been dominated by those who would rather play politics than work on policy. Years from now, no one will remember the names of legislators who cared more about saving high school football than about saving lives.

Quoting from the report’s conclusion:

Every Louisianan deserves an equal chance at a freely chosen life of value. Our findings suggest that for a host of reasons—residential segregation, poverty, health inequities, slavery’s enduring legacy, persisting racial and gender discrimination, among others—many of Louisiana’s residents are deprived of that opportunity. These problems did not arise by chance, nor were they unavoidable—instead, they are the result of the choices people in power have made, over time, to create and maintain the inequalities that exist today. The good news is that through better choices, real progress is possible: this report details various policies—some of which the state has already put in place—to expand opportunity and close the gaps in health, education, and income. Ultimately, A Portrait of Louisiana is a guide for the state’s communities, advocates, and elected officials to learn exactly where those gaps—and opportunities—exist.