Meet Me Downtown

The State Capitol building sits on Tuesday, Sept. 29, 2020 in Downtown Baton Rouge.

Louisiana is ranked last in performance in the United States, according to the U.S. News and World Report’s 2021 state rankings, which has placed Louisiana last four years in a row. 

Louisiana ranked 50th in crime and corrections, 49th in natural environment, 48th in education and opportunity, 47th in economy and infrastructure, 46th in healthcare and 42nd in fiscal stability. 

Compared to 2019’s rankings  (no rankings for 2020),  Louisiana moved up slightly in every category except for healthcare; education; and crime and corrections. Despite these improvements, the Pelican state remains at the bottom of the barrel in key quality of life indicators.

In 2017, Mass Communication Professor Robert Mann wrote a column in The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate titled “Let’s face facts: Louisiana is sick and dying.”

“The question isn't whether there is much hope or aspiration left in Louisiana's people,” Mann wrote. “There is not. The question, instead, is whether this is a place our promising young people should abandon as soon as possible.”

Recently, he told the Reveille he’s not any more optimistic about the outlook for the state than he was three years ago. 

“I think it’s still very bleak and very gloomy,” Mann said. “I would not argue at all with one of my children or one of my students who said they wanted to leave because the state is hopeless. I have no good argument for why that’s not an accurate statement.”

From 2007-2017, Louisiana lost more college-educated individuals than it gained, according to data compiled by an economist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. 

Texas pulls college graduates from Louisiana more than any other state. It has three large cities rife with opportunity -- Austin, Dallas and Houston.

Political science junior Nate Wiggins was born in Lafayette and grew up in Baton Rouge. He said LSU was his last choice for college, but ended up being the most affordable option. He plans to move to Texas after graduating. 

“I’m still proud to call Louisiana my home even with all of its mistakes,” Wiggins said. “But I feel like I’d have better opportunities somewhere else and with my future children.”

The state’s student migration problem is nothing new. The Advocate dedicated a year-long series on the topic in 2002, and Louisiana politicians have long referred to the issue as "brain drain."

 

 

“I think a lot of Louisianans our age have to confront this awful conundrum of ‘do I want to leave home and family so that I can pursue good opportunities?’” LSU College Republicans’ president Ben Smith said. “It sucks because this place could be so much better, and I think we all know that it can be more.”

LSU students often cite the lack of economic opportunity as reason for leaving the state. 

“I always knew that I would eventually want to leave the state because I didn’t see myself raising a family here or living here in the long term,” international studies junior and Baton Rouge native Reva Menon said. “I don’t think the state provides enough opportunity for people that don’t have specific experience with the most familiar job sectors here.”

Mann was inducted into the Louisiana Political Hall of Fame in 2015 for his career in Louisiana politics. He covered Louisiana politics as a journalist in the early 1980s and worked as a press secretary for multiple Louisiana senators and as communications director for former Governor Kathleen Blanco. 

“There’s really not much for you anymore,” Mann said. “The state’s leaders have not taken the problems serious enough to give young people and even old people like me a lot of hope for things to get better here."

"If you want economic opportunity, if you want to live a bigger, better, larger life, then maybe this is not — in the immediate future — the place you need to be. If you stay, maybe you need to think of your service more like missionary work.”

Mathematics sophomore Zyaire White is from New Jersey. He said LSU was his dream school, but Louisiana is a lot different than his home state.

“Being in Baton Rouge opened my eyes to how different the laws are in the South and how much progress here still has to be made,” he said.

History Professor John Bardes studies the Antebellum South and slavery in Baton Rouge. He said Louisiana’s economic problems can be traced to the legacy of slavery.

“Part of the problems we’re talking about are problems that many, if not most, post-slave societies run into,” he said. “You can find this in the Carribean, Latin America and throughout the U.S. South.”

With emancipation, post-slave states struggled to transform from a slave-labor economy to a diversified economy, Bardes said. As cotton and sugar became less productive in the 20th century, Louisiana pivoted toward prioritizing oil and natural gas production. 

“In a lot of ways, oil and natural gas replaced sugar and cotton as the main business that dominated Louisiana’s economy,” Bardes said. “There’s not really opportunities for the professional classes. There’s not a diversified economy. There’s oil and gas work, tourism; but there’s not really a tech sector, for example. There’s just very few options for people. Naturally, you’re going to have a brain drain.”

James Richardson is an economics professor andthe director of the Public Administration Institute in the E. J. Ourso College of Business Administration. He served the state as the private economist on the Louisiana Revenue Estimating Conference since 1987. 

He’s been involved with organizations like the Council for A Better Louisiana and Public Affairs Research Council, which do research and offer policy solutions for the state’s problems.

Despite the many commitments Louisiana politicians have made, improving opportunity in the state is a long-term goal. 

“Every governor knows it’s a 20-year issue and unfortunately we tend to be short-sighted,” Richardson said. “It’s very hard to get people to vote on something that’s going to help them in 20 years.” 

LSU College Democrats’ new president James Simpson recognizes that his organization is fighting an uphill battle in Louisiana, a solid red state, but he wants to stay nonetheless. 

“It’s just not that great to live here,” he said. “I definitely understand why people leave. There’s a lot of work to be done, especially in this area, and I would like to keep doing that work.” 

LSU Political Science Professor Belinda Davis moved back to Louisiana for her family and to help address some of the state’s problems, especially poverty.  

“I have three kids. One’s at LSU right now and I don’t want him to graduate and move across the country because Louisiana can’t offer him what he needs,” Davis said. “I look at you and your friends that want to leave and I say ‘Don’t leave, fight.’ Stay here and help us figure out how to turn this situation around. We can’t do that when our best and brightest are moving to other states.” 

Davis said she believes there are a growing number of people willing to put their individual interests aside for the long-term betterment of the state. 

“I want to create a Louisiana where my child wants to stay,” she said. “If we want to turn Louisiana around, sometimes it takes taking a long view and investing in things that are not going to give you an immediate result.”

Mann said Louisiana is his home and that he plans to stay and fight to change things for the better. 

“I think for so long the unofficial motto, or sensibility of the state has been that we are not worthy of clean air and water, of a real world-class educational system, that we’re just not worthy of those things,” Mann said. “We all sit around here and pretend we don’t have a problem but that’s just self-delusional. Nothing’s going to get better if we just sit around and pretend everything’s fine.”

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