Population decline will continue to fuel years of economic decline in rural Louisiana, and the 29 communities outside of the state’s nine metropolitan areas could lose nearly 3,000 nonfarm jobs by 2025, according to a new forecast by economist Loren Scott.
Job losses — 1,000 in 2023 and another 1,700 in 2024, according to Scott’s analysis — continue a downward trend that began in 2014.
The rural forecast came as part of Scott’s annual economic forecast presented last week at the Louisiana Business Symposium, an annual conference hosted by the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report. For his forecast, Scott analyzed the prospects of nine metro areas in Louisiana, comprising 35 communities. The other 29 parishes are grouped together and referred to as “rural”.
The report highlights the vast disparity between the economic outlook for the state’s rural areas and their metropolitan counterparts, all of which nine are expected to add new jobs over the next two years, led by Lake Charles with projected growth of 4, 4%, wrote Scott. But there are many unknowns.
“Our projections for this year are made in the face of significant uncertainty,” Scott wrote, noting that he expects 2023 to be a “short, shallow recession.”
“Not for the first time in history, we expect Louisiana employment to grow (albeit modestly) during this recession,” he wrote. Some of that growth will come from a rebound in jobs lost during the COVID pandemic.
In a ‘funk’
For the most part, rural Louisiana won’t see much of that growth, which Scott attributes to declining rural populations, a trend across the state.
“Of the 29 rural communities in Louisiana, only three experienced population increases between 2010 and 2020 — Lincoln, Beauregard, and Jeff Davis — while 10 rural communities experienced population declines of 10% or more,” notes Scott.
Since 2014, a combination of factors, including plant closures in the LaSalle and Concordia communities, the decline in oil and gas drilling in northwest Louisiana’s Haynesville Shale, and cutbacks in the state’s shipbuilders, have accelerated the decline.
“All of these factors have contributed to the funk that rural Louisiana has found itself in as of 2014,” Scott wrote.
LSU AgCenter economist Matt Fannin said the forecast highlights the challenges facing the state’s rural areas and should also serve as a warning for metropolitan areas.
“A significant percentage of the emigration from rural Louisiana highlighted in the report goes to smaller and larger metropolitan areas of the state,” Fannin said. Many of those cities are struggling with their own emigration, although the impact has been muted by newcomers from rural Louisiana, he added.
“The continued population decline in rural Louisiana will result in a smaller cohort of rural migration to the Louisiana metropolitan areas, making today’s rural population decline a problem for tomorrow’s metropolitan communities,” Fannin said.
Scott’s analysis doesn’t include Louisiana’s 30,000 or so farm workers, who remain an important part of the rural economy but make up a tiny fraction of the state’s overall economy, he notes.
Scott points to some bright spots in the state’s rural economy.
Syrah Resources’ Vidalia graphite production facility has secured support for an expansion of its electric vehicle battery component plant, which will provide a major boost to the region’s economy. Strategic Biofuels, which produces renewable diesel in Caldwell Parish, has secured most of the funding to build a facility in Columbia. A recent upswing in the lumber industry has seen the construction or expansion of a number of lumber mills statewide as lumber benefits from problems with Canada’s lumber supply.
New orders for Fort Polk in Vernon Parish and expanded investment at the army base have also boosted job growth in the west-central part of the state, Scott notes. And federal dollars pouring into the state coffers for road and shoreline construction could also boost rural communities, Scott notes.
US Rep. Julia Letlow, a Republican representing a largely rural district in the northeastern state, welcomed the projects but said more needs to be done.
“These projects are a great starting point, but for us to achieve the full turnaround, we need to go further,” she said, citing education as a key issue. “We need skilled workers who can meet the needs of the employers we want to bring here.”