'Stay Brady Stay': The Louisiana brain drain

Twenty-eight percent of the adults in Louisiana can't read this sentence.

NATCHITOCHES, La. — Stay Brady Stay, a documentary on the Louisiana brain drain by Dr. John Sutherlin, was screened Friday at the Louisiana Folklife Center’s 2nd Annual Conference on Louisiana Studies, at Northwestern State University. The film was followed by a panel discussion during which Sutherlin made some interesting and depressing observations.

First some basic facts: Louisiana ranks at or near the bottom of just about every indicator of social welfare in the United States. These include literacy, education, income, health, and crime. According to Sutherlin, our “misery index” is the highest in the nation and our standard of living is lower than Puerto Rico’s. Our roads are among the worst in the nation, costing the average resident of Baton Rouge $600 a year in extra car maintenance. We’re a net importer of minimum wage labor and a net exporter of college graduates, and we were for decades prior to Katrina. That disaster only salted the wound.

Louisiana isn’t all negatives. We’re well located near abundant natural resources and major transport hubs. The beauty of this state is astonishing. As I type this I’ve looked out my window to watch hummingbirds fighting over feeders and hibiscus flowers, butterflies on salvia and verbena, cardinals, a woodpecker, and squirrels chewing persimmons off a tree. Blue herons, foxes and owls are all regular visitors to my backyard. We’re blessed with beautiful old buildings and historic sites, extensive national forests, flowers that turn our towns into riots of color every spring, mild winters and wonderful weather in spring and fall. (Summer is another story, but it’s a price I’m happy to pay for never having to shovel snow or chip ice off my windshield.) The people are friendly, the street festivals exuberant and the food excellent (obesity isn’t a problem just because we’re eating fast food). The cost of living is low. But for all these advantages, my state is slowly dying.

The death of a state with so many strengths doesn’t happen by accident. It requires considerable effort to squander so much. Corruption, bad fiscal policy, and inattention to infrastructure and education all play their parts.

Sutherlin, a professor of political science at the University of Louisiana at Monroe, pointed out that Brady, the subject of his documentary, can easily earn twice the salary in Dallas that he can earn in Monroe. Brady is a newly minted teacher from a small town. He likes it there, his family lives there, people are friendly there, but there are no jobs there, making it a foregone conclusion that his small town would get smaller. He still had to make a decision when he graduated from ULM - move to Dallas or stay in Louisiana? Family and love of home trumped higher pay, but Brady is unusual. Most of his classmates left to join friends in Austin, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta, and anywhere else they could go to make better lives for their families.

While other states think of development in terms of research centers and technology, Louisiana approaches it in terms of third-world labor. Sutherlin observed that two recent development projects here include $50 million for a chicken-plucking plant and $40 million to make sweet potatoes into French fries. Governor Jindal’s office released a letter last year in which it was argued, astonishingly, that we’re over-educating people for the Louisiana workforce, a workforce that should apparently consist of chicken pluckers and fry-chefs. Some legislators think the way to reduce high school dropout rates is to reduce high school math and English requirements. Others think that because college graduates leave the state, we should produce fewer college graduates and not train the ones we do produce to the point that out-of-state employers would want them. TOPS, a state scholarship program for our best students, is in budget-cutters’ cross hairs. My university has eliminated programs in chemistry and physics, among others, as its budget has been cut nearly in half over the last three years. Who needs science, anyway? Not chicken pluckers. Mathematics was on the chopping block (math!), excessive numeracy being something we want to avoid.

We need better business laws in this state, better fiscal policy, less reliance on sales taxes, fewer tax subsidies to produce menial jobs. We need better education. One proposal offered during the discussion involved a change to TOPS. Why not turn it into a loan program rather than a scholarship program, and forgive the loan to any student who works in Louisiana for four years after graduation? We have too few good teachers, too few social workers, too few nurses and too few physicians. If the TOPS recipients who leave all stayed for a few years to teach, help improve law enforcement, do social work and provide health care, they wouldn’t fix our problems. But they would make a start.

Tackling our problems on a small scale is also a start. As we do little things, we might find that our huge and intractable problems become less huge and less intractable. I’ve decided to require my economics students, starting next semester, to do research on wealth and poverty in Louisiana. They’ll be required to find small, inexpensive ways to make improvements in the quality of life here, projects that can be done with small grants (under $1000) over a short time. They won’t be required to turn in papers for their final grades, but development proposals. I chatted after the panel discussion with participants from social work, business law and criminal justice about using their expertise to help students look at projects that go beyond economics and into these other disciplines. All were enthusiastic and expressed interest in having their students perform similar service. I’ll be reporting on our successes and failures as we get this program going, and so will my students. Wish us luck. As the Bible says (this is the Bible belt - quoting scripture comes naturally), it’s better to teach one child to read than to curse the government.

James Picht teaches economics at the Louisiana Scholars’ College in Natchitoches, La. From the age of 6, he always knew what he wanted to be. Economist wasn’t it. But after accidentally falling in to it, he found that he liked it. Now he also likes raising his two children, being a husband to Lisa and taking pictures of trees in the middle of the night. He came to Louisiana to take a break from foreign travel, fell in love and stayed.

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Jim Picht

James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics and teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years working in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He returned to Ukraine recently to teach principles of constitutional law and criminal procedure at several Ukrainian law schools for a USAID legal development project. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.

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