Overlooking New Orleans' women

Study finds New Orleans women far worse off post-Katrina and says they need to be incorporated in the rebuilding process.

Published August 21, 2006 11:00AM (EDT)

A favorite approach of some cultural anthropologists is to look at the women of a given society as a gauge of its overall well-being. By that approach, post-Katrina New Orleans is floundering. No surprise there: We're all familiar with the criticism leveled at the government for the citys still lingering disaster. But the Times-Picayune reports that, according to a study released Friday, the women-as-indicator approach paints an even grimmer image than we're used to.

A significant percentage of single mothers haven't returned to the city because of high housing costs, the study found. There are now fewer than 17,000 single mothers living in the city, compared with 51,000 before the storm; food stamp usage by these single mothers is four times what it was before. "That certainly suggests that those who have been able to make it back to the area are largely struggling to get by," said Avis Jones-DeWeever, an area director for the Institute for Women's Policy Research, which sponsored the study.

The rebuilding effort is also benefiting men more than women, the report found. Women now only make up 46 percent of the city's workforce -- a marked 10 percent drop. As for their median earnings, women make $11,400 to $20,000 in the city's lowest-paying jobs, compared with $15,150 to $23,500 for men. Among the highest-paying jobs, the median pay discrepancy balloons even higher: Women make $30,000 to $63,000, while men make $38,700 to $130,000.

And things weren't so great pre-Katrina, either. Women were "living at the bottom," Jones-DeWeever said. They also earned "significantly less than men in the city at the same level of education, and [earned] significantly less than their female counterparts nationwide."

The answer, you ask? Jones-DeWeever pointed to the need to encourage women to return by offering "better opportunities for good jobs along with child care and schools for their children." Also, the report "calls on federal, state and local officials to step up their efforts to provide housing for the working poor and offer women a bigger role in the planning and rebuilding process," according to the Times-Picayune.

I know the popular take on Katrina is that it presents an enormous opportunity to correct the city's preexisting ills, and I hate to be such a gloom merchant, but with the looming 10 to 15 years of as-yet muddled rebuilding, it seems women may be conveniently forgotten. Thats the fear rightly and so often raised in response to politicians' oh-so-optimistic vision of opportunity in disaster: an opportunity, sure, but for whom exactly?

By Tracy Clark-Flory

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