Louisiana is undoubtedly one of America’s cultural centers. Cajun, Creole, Spanish, and other influences mix here like no other place in the world. Rich in natural resources and cultural heritage, the state has an immense capacity to ensure everyone has the opportunity to flourish. Unfortunately, by most objective measures, Louisiana isn’t living up to its true potential.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Louisiana trails the nation in median income, labor force participation, and educational attainment. Similarly, the state seems to excel in the most unflattering demographics, high poverty, high incarceration rates, and rampant inequality.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

I don’t come from money. Far from it. I was my mother’s second child as a teenager. Growing up Black and broke in the South wasn’t easy, but it wasn’t hopeless either. My family struggled. We struggled in public housing and struggled on welfare. However, my mother made it clear to me at a young age that a life of despair wasn’t what she had planned for us. With hard work, my mother and stepfather were able to provide opportunities for me that they simply never had. Although we’re all far from being millionaires, the fruits of labor have ripened and proven to be rewarding with time.

Today, my stepfather continues to enjoy gainful employment. After a lot of toil, my mother is now a small-business owner who continues to inspire me on a daily basis. Similarly, I have enjoyed rising from a meager start of waiting tables in high school to my current position as the director of the new Kevin Kane Center for Opportunity Policy at the Pelican Institute for Public policy. Kevin founded the Pelican Institute to help Louisiana rebuild after Katrina. The Kane Center aims to honor Kevin’s memory by promoting a simple policy platform: opportunity for everyone. Like Kevin, we will challenge the status quo of business as usual and try to pivot the state away from distraction politics that divide us.

We look to engage everyone, regardless of ideology, to identify and remove barriers to work. Burdensome occupational licensing laws often exacerbate inequalities, act as roadblocks for new talent, and serve as a tax on work itself. Over-criminalization disproportionately hurts the poor by burying them in fees, fines, and even jail time for petty infractions. A complex web of social safety net programs too often work at odds with the goal of poverty reduction as benefit cliffs that trap people into cycles of dependence. Together, these policies become an unintentional government roadblock that hinder the ability of Louisianans to find employment and provide for their families.

As an economist that not only studies poverty but has lived through it, I find it impossible to overstate the value of work, security, and stability. For the adolescent, more time spent at school and work is time spent developing crucial skills and income away from dangerous criminal activity. For those that already have a criminal record, work lowers recidivism risk and improves self-worth.

In order to write Louisiana’s comeback story, it is imperative that we work to remove government roadblocks that keep Louisianans locked in cycles of poverty. The Kane Center is devoted to helping Louisianans seize the opportunity to work and provide for their families. By freeing people from burdens of occupational licensing, continuing to reform criminal justice policies, and taking a hard look at our social safety net, our leaders can make Louisiana a place that everyone can flourish.