Monday, August 10, 2015

Monday, August 10, 2015

So much for WISE; Measuring progress in New Orleans; The mental health safety net; and The land of opportunity?


So much for WISE

When it was created in 2014, the $40 million Workforce and Innovation for a Stronger Economy Fund–cleverly titled the WISE Fund–was touted by Gov. Bobby Jindal’s administration and university leaders as the most important investment in a generation. But just a year later, the WISE fund has dropped to 60 percent of its target, reports the Associated Press. And because of budget problems, the Legislature eliminated state support for the effort, leaving colleges to rely on federal hurricane recovery dollars:


They reduced the set-aside to $24 million for the WISE initiative – and paid for it solely with hurricane recovery money, rather than the mix of recovery dollars and state revenue used last year. Recovery money is trickier to use because the dollars need to follow federal guidelines, giving colleges far less flexibility. “We’re not complaining about any money or any source of funds. We’re going to find a way to use it, so I don’t want to appear ungrateful,” said University of Louisiana System President Sandra Woodley. But she also acknowledged: “It’s challenging.”


Worse, the reliance on unorthodox funding and lack of flexibility for universities makes it uncertain that the total amount of the reduced funds will even be spent this year, and it puts colleges on the financial hook in the meantime:


The dollars – allocated to the state after hurricanes Gustav and Ike in 2008 – have so many hurdles, officials with the Board of Regents aren’t even sure colleges can use the full amount this budget year and will start off making plans for only $12 million of the allocation…The hurricane aid can only be spent in 53 of Louisiana’s 64 parishes, on programs that assist low- to moderate-income students, in coordination with approval from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. The spending is reimbursed, so campuses have to float the money upfront and then file paperwork to get the dollars back.


The whole debacle goes to show yet again that until Louisiana tackles its chronic budget woes, it will be difficult for policymakers to make even limited investments that address the state’s problems.


Measuring progress in New Orleans

As the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina nears, there has been no shortage of media  retrospectives and reports on how New Orleans is faring. The Kaiser Family Foundation and National Public Radio took an interesting approach: surveying residents themselves. While things are getting better, major racial disparities exist, NPR reports:


On the positive side, we find that most residents say the recovery effort is going in the right direction. A majority now say the city has mostly recovered from the hurricane. And in the years that we’ve been tracking it, we find big increases in the shares who say there’s been progress made on things like repairing the levees, attracting jobs and businesses to New Orleans, and improving access to public transportation. When you dig below those overall trends that seem to be going in the right direction, we find the progress has been really uneven for different groups, and there are some pretty huge gaps in survey responses, particularly when you look by race. …We asked people whether now is a good time or a bad time for children to be growing up in New Orleans. When we asked them this back in 2008, majorities of both blacks and whites agreed that it was a bad time for kids to be growing up in New Orleans. But now in 2015, 70 percent of whites say it’s a good time for kids, and that compares with just 37 percent of African-Americans.


The survey also found that crime was the biggest concern of residents by a huge margin, far out-polling education or the economy. Read the full survey here.


The mental health safety net

Interesting things we learned from The Advocate’s lengthy look at Louisiana’s mental health system, prompted by the Lafayette theater shooting that left three people dead (including the gunman) and nine injured.


  • Louisianans with severe mental health issues are less likely to be “involuntarily committed” for treatment than residents in at least two other Southern states with similar populations. In 2014 there were 761 involuntary commitments in Louisiana, compared to 2,158 in Alabama and 942 in Kentucky.
  • The number of state-funded beds for people needing long-term mental health treatment has dropped by more than half since 2005 – from 348 to 148 – thanks largely to the closure of a state hospital in Mandeville.
  • Despite fewer beds, the Jindal administration claims it has increased overall spending on mental health, as outpatient services have expanded and the state contracts with private providers. Administration spokesman Mike Reed said spending jumped from $606 million in 2009 to $769 million in 2014.


The land of opportunity?

The American immigrant story is familiar to the point of cliche: Our forefathers came to this country seeking a better life, and to escape rigid class structures that prevent economic mobility. But as Nicholas Kristof writes in the New York Times, those same class structures have taken hold in America, where a large (and growing) opportunity gap exists:


Researchers have repeatedly found that in the United States, there is now less economic mobility than in Canada or much of Europe. A child born in the bottom quintile of incomes in the United States has only a 4 percent chance of rising to the top quintile, according to a Pew study. A separate (somewhat dated) study found that in Britain, such a boy has about a 12 percent chance. Alan Krueger, a Princeton economist, has noted that in the United States, parents’ incomes correlate to their adult children’s incomes roughly as heights do. “The chance of a person who was born to a family in the bottom 10 percent of the income distribution rising to the top 10 percent as an adult is about the same as the chance that a dad who is 5 feet 6 inches tall having a son who grows up to be over 6 feet 1 inch tall,” Krueger observed in a speech. “It happens, but not often.”


Education is considered the key to opportunity, but a “class gap” in things like student test scores is widening even as historical gaps between the races are shrinking. According to Kristof, taking on the “opportunity gap” is the challenge of our time and one that presidential candidates (and candidates for governor, the Dime might add) need to start talking about.


Number of the Day


37 — Share of black New Orleanians who say now is a good time for children to grow up in the city, compared to 70 percent of whites (Source: Kaiser Family Foundation and NPR)