The Advocate, December 9, 2007: A steep hill for workers

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With Louisiana businesses crying for employable workers, expanding the work force is one of the priorities for Gov.-elect Bobby Jindal. But Louisiana has steep hills to climb in bringing more people into the work force and thus more productive lives.

Too many of Louisiana۪s adults lack the education and the skills to participate fully in the work force. Let۪s face it: Growth in the work force is likely to come from families that are struggling today. Middle-class people who want to work already are working.

Jindal۪s transition team on social services took testimony from experts about ways to work with poor families to improve their prospects in life. But as Barry Erwin of the Council for a Better Louisiana told the transition committee, the challenges remain enormous.

“We۪ve got more than a third of our households, not persons but households, with an income of less than $25,000 a year,” Erwin said. “Think about what that means for raising a family.”

For single mothers more than 40 percent of children live in single-parent households, second highest among the states the day-to-day challenges of making ends meet, getting child care, and training and holding down a job are huge.

“So many things we۪re working on as a state are related to poverty,” Erwin said. “We have the highest percentage of people eligible to receive food stamps, and 61 percent of our kids in public schools are eligible for free or reduced lunch. That۪s an issue not talked about much, but it۪s a real issue in Louisiana.”

The U.S. government spends $1 billion a year on food stamps for Louisiana families. That۪s 10th among the states, but the nine states ahead of us “are much larger states than Louisiana with many times our population,” Erwin said.

There are some bright spots in the long list of bad statistics. While Louisiana is third among the states in the percentage of people without health insurance, efforts by the administrations of Govs. Mike Foster and Kathleen Blanco have signed up many children for health insurance. “The overall rate would be higher than it is without that, but at least we۪ve made some progress there,” Erwin noted.

School performance and poverty are closely linked.

“Not all high-poverty schools in Louisiana are failing schools, but all of our failing schools are high-poverty schools,” Erwin said, adding that clearly there is at least a possibility of translating good practices into other schools.

Where are new workers for Louisiana businesses going to come from? They are being raised now in families with relatively low incomes, going to public schools that are performing poorly compared with those in most other states, often by single mothers who are hard-pressed to keep body and soul together, much less achieve regular attendance at job-training programs.

Two of Jindal۪s highest-profile appointments are Tim Barfield and Stephen Moret, the former a businessman, who will be secretary of the Labor Department and the latter president of the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, who will head economic development efforts. Both will have to focus on the ways the state can expand and improve its pool of productive workers.

Because of the huge impact of poverty on school achievement and so many other factors, new and creative approaches will be needed to increase the pool of human beings fed, clothed and educated that can provide workers for today۪s jobs and the future.

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