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Columnist Geoff Daily explores Lafayette’s economy and government, providing critical commentary about what’s working and what’s not.

Column: Lafayette isn’t paying competitive wages

Large piggy bank broken with a piece laying on a person
Illustration by Peter DeHart

People are struggling to earn a living in Lafayette. That’s worrisome at a time when the cost of living is high and rising. Because it’s eroding our ability to attract and retain talent. 

Some new numbers from the federal government underscore that reality.

Out of the seven largest parishes in the state, Lafayette Parish ranked seventh in average weekly wages in the fourth quarter of 2022, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. People in Lafayette Parish took home only $1,107. That’s lower than the statewide average of $1,134. Orleans Parish led the way with $1,273 per week.

Out of the 356 largest counties in the U.S., Lafayette ranked 276th, or in the bottom quartile. In other words, when it comes to wages, Lafayette’s not competitive with other parts of the state or the country. Effectively, that means many people are having to take a hometown discount to stay or move here.

Low wages aren’t just a matter of not being able to save as much or afford as nice a home. Putting aside the fact that affordable homes largely don’t exist in Lafayette, many people living here can’t afford to make ends meet.

A few weeks ago, the United Way released its annual ALICE report, which quantifies the number of people struggling to get by, who researchers often call the working poor. These are people who are employed but aren’t earning enough to cover the costs associated with a basic survival budget.

According to this analysis, 43% of households in Lafayette Parish weren’t making enough money to pay their bills in 2021. While that ratio is actually in the top 10 in the state, as a whole Louisiana is ranked 50th in the country on this measure. Meaning we’re near the top of the very bottom.

A woman and a man, holding a baby, in front of a small home

With an aging stock of existing homes, and effectively no new construction below $200,000, Lafayette’s first-time homebuyers are being shut out of the market.

Poverty has climbed in Lafayette, but slower than the number of people who meet the ALICE threshold. The number of people living in poverty grew 14% from 2010 to 2021. The number living above the poverty line but below the ALICE threshold grew by 50% in the same period.

Some of these trends aren’t surprising against the backdrop of the decline in employment in Lafayette’s oil and gas industry. At its peak in 2014, the “mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction” industry generated $2.7 billion in wages and salaries. By 2021 that amount had fallen to $847 million. Oil and gas jobs are generally higher paying. And we’ve lost almost $2 billion per year of income from those types of jobs.

All of this data would be bad in a vacuum, but it’s especially frightening when considered against trends related to young people. In OneAcadiana’s Vibrant Communities survey last year, only 37% of respondents thought Acadiana was a good place for recent college graduates. And recent data from UL economist Gary Wagner shows that on the whole Louisiana is losing its college graduates.

I do think Lafayette offers a lot of intangibles that aren’t easily found elsewhere. But those intangibles only go so far if you’re not able to afford a minimum standard of living, or if the additional money you can make elsewhere exceeds the potentially higher cost of living.

I sometimes worry that we’ve been too content to rest on our laurels, that our belief in how special our community is has blinded us to the basic dollars and cents that can force people to move even if they don’t want to. 

There are no easy answers. It’d be great if we could just magically increase wages or decrease costs or create new high-paying jobs. But that’s not how the world works.

Fixing these issues is going to take a lot of hard work over a long period of time. It’s going to require doing more to nurture and attract new businesses and new industries. It’s going to take market forces pressuring existing businesses to increase wages if they want to have a workforce that can afford to live here and if they want to be competitive when it comes to recruiting and retaining talent. And it’s going to take smart investments of public and private dollars into for-profit, government, and nonprofit endeavors to bend these curves in the right direction.

But the first step to finding solutions is to acknowledge the problem exists and that it’s an existential threat to our future. We need Lafayette to be the kind of place that doesn’t just offer great food and music and culture. We need to be a community where people can earn a living and build a better financial future for themselves. But as it stands today, for far too many of our neighbors that’s not their reality.

📢 Holler at us: How is this issue affecting you?