Washed away?  Or moved to the suburbs?

At FiveThirtyEight, Ben Casselman writes: “Katrina Washed Away New Orleans’s Black Middle Class.” It’s a provocative piece showing the sharp decline in the black population of the city of New Orleans, particularly the city’s black middle class. While the city has rebounded in many ways since Katrina, the city’s black population has recovered more slowly, and middle-income blacks especially so. While the white, non-Hispanic population of the city is still below pre-Katrina levels, it has rebounded faster than the black population.

Casselman alludes to the diaspora of the city’s African American population, which is down by nearly 100,000 from pre-Katrina levels. His analysis shows that the black middle class has recovered far more slowly than other demographic groups, but doesn’t say where they might have moved to. And the analysis conspicuously omits one major factor shaping population trends in New Orleans (and for that matter, other U.S cities): the suburbanization of the black middle class. The word “suburb” doesn’t appear in Casselman’s piece.

Casselman is clear that his analysis covers just the city limits of New Orleans, or Orleans Parish. But there’s much more to metro New Orleans than Orleans Parish. Like most US metros, a majority of the region’s population—and most of its population growth—has been in its suburbs. Suburbanization has accelerated post-Katrina. The city’s population is only about 30 percent of the New Orleans metropolitan area, down from about from 36 percent of the metro total in 2000.

The suburbanization of blacks in New Orleans

Those who follow New Orleans closely know that the area’s black population has grown increasingly suburban. The Data Center, a New Orleans-based independent research organization, has tracked the region’s changes before and after Katrina on its website and in a recent report “Who Lives in New Orleans and Metro Parishes Now?” Their data shows the makeup of the metropolitan area according to its constituent parishes for the years 2000 and 2013. Their findings show a stark gap between demographic trends in the city and surrounding suburbs:

While the city has 97,395 fewer black residents, the metro area as a whole has only 66,752 fewer black residents, revealing that the suburban parishes have gained more than 30,000 blacks. Moreover, the metro area as whole has had a net loss of 75,228 white residents. In short, the metro area as a whole is increasingly diverse with gains in blacks, Hispanics, and Asians and losses of white residents in nearly every parish.

While the black population is increasing in suburban parishes, the reverse is true for the white population, according to The Data Center’s report. The white, non-Hispanic population of the suburban parishes has decreased 11 percent, slightly faster than in Orleans parish, compared to an increase the black population of the suburban parishes of 17 percent. (We’ve reproduced the data from the center’s 2014 report below in the Appendix.)

The movement of black Americans to the suburbs is a widespread trend. According to the Brookings Institution’s Bill Frey, the black population of many central cities is decreasing (including in nine of the ten largest cities), and the black population of the suburbs is increasing almost everywhere, with 96 of the 100 largest metropolitan areas recording increasing in their suburban black population. This movement is propelled by the black middle class; Frey notes that the black movement to the suburbs is led by the young, those with higher education, and married couples with children. As Pete Saunders has written, suburban living is still aspirational for many blacks.

Black middle class growing in New Orleans suburbs

But the growing black population in New Orleans’ suburbs is not a representative sample of the region’s African American residents. Rather, Census data suggest that it largely reflects an increase in middle-income and upper-income black households. Data tabulated by the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey show the relative income levels of black households living in Orleans Parish compared to suburban areas. We’ve extracted data from American Fact Finder for 2005 and 2012. (The 2013 data are available, but reflect a change in metro area boundaries, so we use the earlier data for comparability.) While the Census Bureau reports data in the same income ranges in each year, the dollar figures are not directly comparable between 2005 and 2012 due to inflation over that time period. In metropolitan New Orleans, higher income black households are more likely to live in the suburban parishes than are low income blacks. As of 2012, about 72 percent of blacks with incomes under $15,000 live in Orleans Parish, while about 53 percent of blacks with incomes over $35,000 live in one of the surrounding suburban parishes. Comparing the income distribution data for black households in Orleans Parish with those for suburban parishes in 2005 and 2012 shows that while lower income black households have become more heavily concentrated in the city, middle- and upper-income black households have become more likely to live in the suburbs. Here we’ve divided all black households in metro New Orleans into three roughly equal groups based on household income, and reported the share of the metro total in each income group that resides in Orleans Parish in 2005 and 2012. In 2006, about 63.4 percent of the region’s black middle-income households lived in Orleans Parish. This declined to 54.4 percent in 2012. The share of the region’s poorest black households living in Orleans Parish actually increased from about 68 percent to 72 percent. The location of the highest earning third (those with incomes of $40,000 or more) shifted from a majority in Orleans Parish (54 percent in 2005) to a majority living in the suburban parishes in 2012.  


A more integrated New Orleans

Overall, the metropolitan New Orleans region has become more integrated. During the decade of the 1990s, black/white segregation in metropolitan New Orleans was actually increasing—a pattern that ran contrary to the national trend. But between 2000 and 2010, the New Orleans metropolitan area recorded a sharp decrease in segregation as measured by the black/white dissimilarity index. According to William H. Frey at the University of Michigan Population Studies Center, the black-white dissimilarity index for metropolitan New Orleans has fallen from 68.3 in 1990 and 69.2 in 2000 to 63.9 in 2010.

A racial dot map of metropolitan New Orleans, showing the state of segregation in 2010. Credit: Cooper Center Dot Map
A racial dot map of metropolitan New Orleans, showing the state of segregation in 2010. Credit: Cooper Center Dot Map

One of the keys to addressing the black-white earnings disparity is reducing segregation. As we wrote earlier this year, metropolitan areas with higher levels of segregation have, on average, much higher black-white earnings gaps. Similarly, as the work of Raj Chetty and his colleagues has shown, income and racial segregation is a powerful correlate of impaired economic mobility. The problem is exceptionally acute in New Orleans, which ranks 99th of the 100 largest metropolitan areas on Chetty’s index of intergenerational economic mobility.

As New Orleans rebuilds, it has an opportunity to address the historic patterns of segregation that have aggravated the economic plight of the area’s African-American population. It appears that it is making some progress on this front.

It’s fair, as FiveThirtyEight has done, to acknowledge the significant demographic changes that have taken place in New Orleans. Unquestionably, Katrina has had an enormous impact. But the decline of the black middle class in New Orleans also reflects two well-established trends: the national decline of segregation in housing and the movement of higher income blacks to the nation’s suburbs. Fewer blacks live in New Orleans, and more live in its suburbs. While the white non-Hispanic share of the city’s population has increased—at xx percent it’s still a minority—the white, non-Hispanic population of the area’s suburbs has decreased even faster. In the wake of Katrina, metro New Orleans is gradually becoming a more integrated city.


Population Change, by Race & Ethnicity,

Metropolitan New Orleans, 2000 to 2013

Orleans Parish
2000 2013 Chg. %Chg
White, Non-Hispanic 128,871 117,377 -11,494 -9%
Black 323,392 223,742 -99,650 -31%
Hispanic 14,826 20,849 6,023 41%
Asian 11,007 11,356 349 3%
Other 6,578 5,391 -1,187 -18%
Total 484,674 378,715 -105,959 -22%
Balance of MSA
2000 2013 Chg. %Chg
White, Non-Hispanic 602,643 536,753 -65,890 -11%
Black 175,177 204,179 29,002 17%
Hispanic 43,719 82,212 38,493 88%
Asian 17,621 23,882 6,261 36%
Other 13,892 15,236 1,344 10%
Total 853,052 862,262 9,210 1%
New Orleans MSA
2000 2013 Chg. %Chg
White, Non-Hispanic 731,514 654,130 -77,384 -11%
Black 498,569 427,921 -70,648 -14%
Hispanic 58,545 103,061 44,516 76%
Asian 28,628 35,238 6,610 23%
Other 20,470 20,627 157 1%
Total 1,337,726 1,240,977 -96,749 -7%


Source: http://www.datacenterresearch.org/data-resources/who-lives-in-new-orleans-now/