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United Way of Southeast Louisiana operates Prosperity Centers in Orleans and St. Tammany parishes to provide financial education and assistance.

If you want to complain about big government, spend some time looking at the upside of Louisiana’s dependence on Uncle Sam.

Checks. Lots of big checks.

The extent of our dependence was summarized by this newspaper’s Mark Ballard when reporting on the discussion of a potential financial default caused by politics in the nation's capital.

The U.S. government pays for much of Louisiana's highway and bridge construction, along with airports and seaports. Matching funds from the state are required and harder to come by than they used to be, as inflation over three decades — not just the past couple of years — has eroded the buying power of the state gasoline tax, which provides the local match. 

Not to mention that Louisiana must maintain, with state-generated money, the highways that we build with all that federal money.

It’s also true that the billions we have received (and, hopefully, will continue to receive) in federal infrastructure dollars are very good for business. They pay construction contractors. That means good-paying jobs in a state that desperately needs them. 

Same goes for another source of enormous federal aid: health care. Every year, billions flow into the state for providers, like doctors and hospitals and nursing homes. That, too, is a huge source of good-paying jobs.

More importantly, those federal dollars keep a large portion of Louisiana's work force healthy and going to work.

About 40% of Louisiana people depend on health care mostly subsidized by the federal government. In the case of Gov. John Bel Edwards' 2016 decision to expand Medicaid and cover hundreds of thousands more of our state's working poor, the U.S. Treasury picks up 90% of the tab.

About 20% of our people receive food stamps, officially called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, almost completely funded by the federal government.

So, for those who gripe about fellow citizens being on the federal dole, here's the reality check: A state with a large percentage of its people living in poverty, or close to that level, cannot get by without a massive influx of federal money.

If anything, according to a new United Way report, our dependence is increasing: The number of income-challenged Louisiana families grew 3% between 2019 and 2021.

More than half of all households in the state either live in poverty or comprise the working poor, according to the report on Louisiana's so-called ALICE families: asset-limited, income-constrained and employed.

They were hit hard during the pandemic years. “Most certainly the economic scars of the recent years are visible with the data in this report,” said Sarah Berthelot of the Louisiana Association of United Ways.

The crisis in rural Louisiana, with population counts declining in small towns and villages, highlights another symptom of Louisiana's endemic poverty levels — they're not limited to urban areas. More than half of all rural households (59%) were either in poverty or at ALICE status, the new report said.

Poverty has profound impacts on children who cannot have the nutrition and family support so vital to success in school.

All this is depressing, even if Uncle Sam continues to provide the checks that keep us afloat. True economic growth springs not just from industrial facilities but from what Edmund Burke called the “little platoons,” the neighborhoods or villages that constitute a healthy society.

The family is the basis of society's little platoons. And at the ALICE level, they are having a hard time making it.

So, before grousing about people who are on the federal dole, remember that Louisiana has long been a ward of Uncle Sam. And, for the foreseeable future, we need him to keep those checks coming.