A Sign of the Times: A fenced-off construction site fends off jobseekers in New Orleans. Unemployed residents of the Gulf Coast are finding it hard to secure work opportunities as a jobs drought continues into its fourth year (Source: Flickr (Editor B))
This summer, most Americans beyond the Beltway have not been spending their days dwelling over the merits and faults of “cut, cap, and balance” or the nuances of loophole adjustments in the “Gang of Six” plan. Instead, they have been waiting for Democrats and Republicans to shift their attention from the debt ceiling and deficit reduction to a subject that has seemingly fallen off of Washington’s radar: jobs.
True, politicians on the left and the right have mentioned improved prospects for job creation in their respective arguments for tax reform and spending cuts. But the apparent lack of progress on actually tackling joblessness in Louisiana and other states has forced concerned observers in academia, business, government, and the nonprofit sector to sound the alarm for more urgent action on unemployment.
On July 17, Meet the Press host David Gregory assembled a leadership panel to discuss the challenges facing the American economy. Joblessness was the top concern voiced by Marc Morial, a former mayor of New Orleans who currently serves as head of the National Urban League. Morial said that the United States needs a robust new “jobs plan” to get its sluggish economy moving again. Though the U.S. is now in its second year of a post-recession expansion, the persistently high rate of unemployment has continued to hammer households and hinder consumer confidence.
We can see why struggling industrial centers in the Northeast or hard-hit cities in the Southwest might need a “jobs plan,” but is that a necessary prescription for Louisiana and its neighbors? Let’s look at some employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) and economic ratios for wetland restoration work to see why a localized job creation initiative that emphasizes environmental rehabilitation could be great for the Gulf Coast.
A Cap on the Well, But No Lid on the Unemployment Rate
A year after the capping of the Deepwater Horizon well, the states ringing the spill zone have had some admitted economic successes. Despite the worst fears, signs of economic revival have appeared in different pockets of the region. For example, non-farm payrolls in the Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux metropolitan area reportedly rose by 5,300 between January 2011 and June 2011, equivalent to a 5.9% jump in the number of employed workers for that section of the Mississippi River Delta.
There have been broader signs of recovery as well. For example, the recreation sector – an important source of jobs in the five-state region – has been benefiting from an unexpected uptick in visitors, as budget-conscious travelers and their families forego foreign excursions for beach trips to Galveston, Gulfport, and Grand Isle.
But despite this encouraging news, the shadows of the spill and the effects of the Great Recession continue to cloud prospects for employment growth. Seasonally-adjusted unemployment numbers for nineteen metropolitan statistical areas (MSAs) adjacent to or on the Gulf of Mexico show that while some metro areas reported declines in unemployment between May 2010 and May 2011, most did not. In fact, six of the MSAs closest to the Deepwater Horizon site – Mobile, Alabama; Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux, Lake Charles, and New Orleans-Metairie-Kenner, Louisiana; and Gulfport-Biloxi and Pascagoula, Mississippi – saw increases in unemployment of 0.3% or more over the twelve-month period.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Even in Gulf Coast MSAs where jobless rates fell, unemployment levels in May 2011 remained high. For example, in the Pensacola-Ferry Pass-Brent metropolitan area in northwestern Florida, the jobless rate fell by 0.5% from May 2010 to May 2011, but the unemployment rate in late spring 2011 (9.8%) was still 0.7% above the national average of 9.1%.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
While Texas was less directly affected by the oil spill due to circulation patterns in the Gulf of Mexico, it too witnessed rising unemployment in its coastal cities, with four of the six metro areas surveyed reporting jobless rate increases between May 2010 and May 2011.
Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics
Overall, we find that the total number of unemployed people in the nineteen Gulf Coast metropolitan areas fell by just under 7,000 people during the twelve-month period from May ’10 to May ’11, largely due to big declines in unemployment in Florida cities like Tampa and Cape Coral. Still, such news provides cold comfort for the more than 680,000 people who remain unemployed in the major metropolitan areas of this region. Furthermore, the figures presented do not include the tens of thousands of unemployed people in rural counties and parishes that aren’t lumped into the U.S. Census Bureau’s subset of metropolitan sampling zones. And when we consider how severe the unemployment crisis remains in areas closest to the spill (the New Orleans MSA had the biggest increase in unemployed persons (May 2010 – May 2011 change: +5,976) of all the metro areas examined), it becomes clear that the Gulf Coast needs to redouble its efforts on creating jobs.
But what sort of program could quickly get people working in Brownsville, Biloxi, and Bayou Cane? Is there a silver bullet that will bring unemployment in Pensacola and Pass Christian to its knees? We think the answer might lie in ecosystem restoration.
Why the RESTORE Act Would Help Economic Recovery
The entire Gulf Coast is facing severe environmental challenges. We have already referred to the Mississippi River Delta’s land loss crisis throughout our blog, but there are other estuaries and coastal habitats like Apalachicola Bay and the Sabine River wetlands that will also need heavy investment in restoration work. Integrated within these efforts is a need to rehabilitate the Gulf of Mexico, whose marine life has been adversely affected by the loss of wetland breeding grounds, the increase of nitrate and phosphate flow through thinned coastal marshes, and the release of oil and dispersants during last year’s spill.
Source: Flickr (Steve Rhodes)
We could ameliorate the situation right now – and improve the long-term sustainability of cities, infrastructure and industries ringing the Gulf of Mexico – by putting people to work on efforts to revive wetlands, rebuild oyster reefs and restore barrier islands. Previous efforts at economic stimulus did not do enough to fix the situation, meaning that there is a long list of projects to complete all along the Gulf Coast.
In coastal Louisiana, expedited construction of important river diversions at Myrtle Grove and other sites could create hundreds of jobs for engineers, scientists, and contractual laborers. In Alabama, dozens of people could be put to work on shoring up sand dunes near Fort Gaines, a historic site on Dauphin Island that could crumble into the sea because of coastal erosion. Further afield in places like Florida, local residents could replant mangrove swamps and reseed degraded salt marshes. Per $1 million invested, these efforts often generate more jobs than traditional regional sectors like energy extraction, and because many of them require minimal training, these programs could immediately employ thousands of jobless people regardless of skill level.
How the long-term jobs plan will take shape remains to be seen. It might involve a mix of tax credits, corporate investment, federal funding, and private initiative. It will certainly require innovative partnerships between government bureaus along the Gulf Coast and universities and research institutes scattered around the region. However, in the short term, the prospect of potentially transformative funding from BP’s Clean Water Act penalties should serve as a catalyst for community action on shaping these proposals and sketching out what they will entail.
Some of that work is already taking place in Louisiana. Part of the $1 billion in early action NRDA payments from BP will soon be put to use on several dozen environmental projects in the Pelican State, and the news last Thursday that a bipartisan coalition of nine Gulf Coast senators was now cosponsoring the RESTORE Act heralded hope that a huge stream of funds, large enough to address the twin problems of economic growth and environmental recovery in this battered region, would finally be reaching businesses from the Florida Keys to the Rio Grande.
Others have discussed the idea of green jobs in Gulf Coast restoration before, and last year’s spill provided a dry run for an environmental jobs program when BP hastily hired thousands of area residents for temporary cleanup work. Now, without the duress of an immediate environmental catastrophe like the Deepwater Horizon explosion, we have the opportunity to thoughtfully address the bigger issues facing the region and implement a well-executed plan to save it.
We need Congress to pass the RESTORE Act, but it won’t happen without your help. We hope that by sharing this post with your colleagues and friends, you will spread the message that investing billions in ecosystem restoration would be a great way to help the Gulf Coast’s environment and to get its people back to work.