Like a turtle on a log, Lafayette has been basking in the warm glow of national approbation for some time now — or at least in the fawning approval of the travel, food and business press. Coupled with an uncanny flexibility in patting ourselves on the back, it’s been pretty awesome to be Lafayette.
Glossy mags and websites have decided we’re a great town for food — the “tastiest” as a matter of fact — and we’re an awesome destination for culture-seekers with our world-class festivals. The economy has purred like a fat kitten even as the Great Recession growled, and business publications have taken note.
We’re the best of this and the best of that, and we crane our neck to soak up a little more of the warmth.
But every now and again the chill wind of reality billows up under our shell. And we shiver and shrink from it.
In early November the website 24/7 Wall Street, using data from the Census Bureau’s 2012 American Community Survey, ranked metro areas with the greatest income inequality in the United States. Lafayette ranked seventh. In the whole U.S. Cue that wind.
The site used what’s called the Gini coefficient, a century-old formula used to measure wealth distribution. If you look at a world map with countries shaded from white to navy — white representing wealth equality, navy representing inequality — the U.S. is medium blue, along with countries like Russia, Nigeria and Argentina. South Africa, where there is cashmere and burlap but not much in between, is navy. Canada, Australia and most of the countries of Western Europe, with their large middle class and relatively low poverty, are pretty pale.
Lafayette is sprinkled among metro areas large and small on 24/7 Wall Street’s list; income inequality is worse in places like New York, Miami, Jackson, Miss., and Vero Beach, Fla. Yet it’s sobering that we’re even on this list.
The top 20 percent of households in Lafayette took home 53 percent of the wealth in 2012, while the bottom 20 percent took home just 3 percent. Our median household income is just under $47,000, lower than the national average of $51K, yet the percentage of households making over $200,000 a year is just a notch above the national average. These data suggest we have a lot of despair in Lafayette.
In fact, our poverty rate is 17.9 percent — two percentage points higher than the national average. That’s nearly one in five of us. One in five.
For those of us living in affluent neighborhoods on the south side, we don’t see these hardscrabble people. Unless they’re driving in to clean our homes or trim our hedges. And we’re rarely if ever exposed to the persistent and pernicious byproducts of poverty — crime, domestic dysfunction, hunger.
I see it from my vantage point in Oaklawn, a quiet, leafy, middle-class subdivision of cottages nestled between the Saint Streets and Four Corners. I choose to live there because it’s close to downtown and the university — the cultural heart of the city — but it’s also within shouting distance of some of the most cancerous poverty in the city. I hear it in the police and ambulance sirens whirring at night into nearby neighborhoods like Promised Land and Azalea Park. I see it in the litter billowing across the Piggly Wiggly parking lot in the evening — the day’s accumulation of apathy.
Poverty is with us, but for many of us it’s out of sight and therefore out of mind.
Yes, we’re a great place for business. A great place for festivals and live music and food. But are we really, truly a great place for people? Every now and then it’s good to be reminded that we can do better.