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Why the Lake Area Miracle Is a Myth for Most of Us

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Most people who defend the Lake Charles Miracle (which is really more of a Lake Area phenomenon, even if nobody calls it that) as being anything other than a comforting lie tend to point directly to jobs at area refineries as proof positive that things are going great. And they’re not wrong – plant jobs are wonderful, and the people who have them make good money. They work hard, and they deserve it. We have no problem with the plants or their workers. You guys are great. The problem is that most of us don’t work at the plants, and it’d be pretty awful if we did.

A city does not run on one industry alone. If the plants employed 100% of the people in Calcasieu Parish, who would work everywhere else? We still need roads, we still need infrastructure, we still need firefighters and police and teachers. We still need stores, we still need restaurants, and we still need everything else it takes to make a city function.

While it’s true that every new permanent job created at the plants will naturally lead to new jobs being created elsewhere in the local economy as demand for various services increases with the population, the problem is that most of those other jobs will pay the same stagnant wages as everything else. Go back a decade or so, and Lake Charles was a cheap place to live. Fast-forward to today, and that mentality is still in place, despite the cost of living having skyrocketed in recent years. Wages haven’t kept up. At all.

So don’t job shame the rest of us when we rightfully point out that, for most people working in the Lake Area, the big economic boom has done more to hurt more of us than the relatively few people it has helped.

Rent has skyrocketed thanks to the massive influx of temporary construction jobs bringing in temporary construction workers, our combined sales tax is one of the highest in the entire country, and we’re slapped with fee after fee after fee as we pay all the hidden taxes nobody talks about in polite society.

This can be easily shown with school fees every parent is getting ready to pay this month. When did public school get so expensive? I’m not talking about buying clothes and school supplies – that’s just part of raising a kid. Rather, I’m talking about all the fees parents have to pay just to get their children registered and ready for public school each year.

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There are school fees, testing fees, program fees, and the list just goes on and on. However, I don’t blame the schools. I blame the city and the parish for not adequately funding them.

While it’s true that a large part of that lack of funding comes from residents being able to homestead their homes to avoid property taxes on the first $75,000 of a house’s appraised value, we’ve always had that exemption. It’s nothing new, people living paycheck-to-paycheck in modest homes rely on it, and the authorities should’ve taken that into account when budgeting resources.

Weren’t lottery funds supposed to throw revenue at education? And yet, the schools still have no money. Wasn’t casino cash supposed to rain down upon education? And yet, the schools still have no money. Shouldn’t our ridiculously high sales tax mean our education system is flush with cash? And yet, the schools still have no money.

The same goes for everything else in this area. We pay and we pay and we pay, but somehow there’s still no money to fix our drainage problems so our streets and homes will stop flooding. We pay and we pay and we pay, but there’s still no money to fix our roads or bridges. We pay and we pay and we pay, but there’s still not enough money to give us a measly two-day break on local sales taxes for “tax-free” weekend. (Sure, local media reported it as a “sales tax holiday” where we only paid “3% of the state tax” – but they conveniently left out the fact that we all still paid 5.75% in local sales taxes for every purchase we made over that lie of a weekend.)

And yet, people still flocked to the stores, while we all heard about how the weekend was a great success amidst glowing stories about how wonderful it was for everyone…to save a measly 2% in taxes. All we did was go from our normal sales tax of 10.75% down to 8.75%, and you’d think we’d all just struck gold.

Smoke and mirrors.

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For every dollar we spent during the “tax-free” weekend, we saved two cents. Two whole pennies. That works out to saving ten bucks for every $500 we spent during our super successful “tax-free” weekend that didn’t help anyone. If you could afford to spend $1000, then congratulations! You probably didn’t really need to save that twenty bucks, anyway. Good job, you!

Now I read something like this article from the Indiana Gazette, and it just rubs me the wrong way. The Lake Charles Miracle is being touted far and wide, to the point where we had officials come all the way from the state of Indiana to visit the Southwest Louisiana Economic Development Center (SEED) this past June to see how we’ve done it.

“Falsehood flies, and the Truth comes limping after it.” – Jonathan Swift

It’s important to the Powers That Be in our area to keep the myth going. We need constant investment to maintain the Ponzi Scheme that defines our growth, so selling a positive narrative is a priority local media outlets seem happy to go along with, which is why many people suspect we rarely – if ever – see any reporting that questions any of it.

The sad truth is that, for the vast majority of people living and working in the Lake Area, there’s nothing miraculous about what’s going on. Our cost of living is getting prohibitively expense while our wages remain stagnant. Most of the new jobs being created are going to temporary workers, while the good, permanent jobs are usually given to somebody who knows somebody. What’s left over goes to the rest of us, and the pay is almost always terrible.

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Meanwhile, 43% of families in Calcasieu Parish are living life in poverty or struggling to get by as the working poor, while 55% of families in Lake Charles are doing the same thing. (Read the full report on that here.)

Rent has increased by an astounding 83% over the past decade, with a staggering increase of over 50% in just the last few years alone. (More on that here.)

Lake Charles has a total crime rate that’s 21% higher than the rest of Louisiana, and it’s 50% higher than the national average. (Read more on that here.)

And yet, we’re constantly told how great everything is. We’re growing! Economic boom! We’re one of the safest communities!

There is a lot that is good about Lake Charles, and the Lake Area in general. The people here are some of the best I’ve ever met. There’s a rich history and culture in Southwest Louisiana that you just won’t find anywhere else, and it’s worth holding on to. Which is why those of us who love it here are screaming for anyone to listen, because we truly believe that what we have here is worth saving.

But how can we do that when people are being priced out of their homes? How can we keep Lake Charles great when 55% of its residents are living and working in poverty? How can our local businesses thrive in an environment where over half the population can barely afford to make next month’s rent, let alone go out to dinner at a local restaurant?

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We’re just a radio station. We’re not the evening news, and we’re not journalists. We talk about the Lake Area Economy, but we aren’t economists. We’re just people. All we’re supposed to do is bring you good tunes and good times, but if nobody else is going to be honest with you, we’ll try our best. Not everyone will agree – which is good. The way you solve problems is to talk about them, debate them, and find common ground to arrive at solutions that work for everyone. All we can do is try to spark the conversation by giving you the truth as we see it, by listening to the people living and working here, and by living and working here ourselves.

We need to start having an open and honest discussion about the problems we’re facing, otherwise we’ll never be able to fix them. And that’s kinda hard to do when everyone from the SWLA Economic Development Alliance on down to the local media not only refuses to address the legitimate concerns area residents have, but stubbornly insist upon repeating the same feel-good narrative that directly contradicts the harsh reality most of us are living day after day.

Something’s gotta give, y’all.

READ MORE: We Need to Stop Listening and Start Talking, Lake Charles

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