Poverty Is Still America’s Katrina Shame
Earl Ofari Hutchinson
President Bush and the three top Democrats that want to replace him couldn’t get to New Orleans fast enough this week. The occasion of course was the second anniversary of the Katrina debacle. Predictably, Bush as he’s done in his twelve previous treks to the Gulf since Katrina publicly boasted that he’s done everything humanly possible to get the region back on its feet. He also insisted that much more still must be done and his administration will do it. Just as predictably, his would be replacements Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards just as publicly lambasted Bush’s efforts as hopelessly failed and flawed. And they insisted that there’s no reason to believe that he’ll improve on the anemic effort.
They both missed the real story and tragedy of Katrina, and that’s that the naked face of poverty that shocked the world two years ago remains just as naked and shameful two years later. And Bush and the Democrats are to blame for it. For a few weeks after the shocking scenes of the black poor fleeing for their lives from the floodwaters in New Orleans, Bush and the Democrats talked tough about a full court press on poverty. In that instant, talk of fighting poverty became almost respectable in business, public philanthropy, Congressional and White House circles. In a post Katrina assessment of public opinion on poverty, more Americans agreed that the government should do more to end poverty.
Civil rights leaders, the Congressional Black Caucus, and anti-poverty groups saw an opening and pounded on the Bush administration and Congress to do something about whittling down the ranks of the estimated 35 to 40 million Americans that still wallow in poverty.
That was two years ago. The national soul search about attacking poverty has evaporated faster than a Houdini disappearing trick. The nearly $100 billion that Bush says his administration has shoved out to the states to aid the recovery effort has either been wasted on showy and ineffectual redevelopment, public works reclamation and retrenching projects, inflated construction contracts, or flat out misappropriated (some say stolen). Not one of Bush's anti-poverty proposals from tax breaks and grants for minority and small business to job training and transportation subsidies have been enacted.
Bush deserves to get the blame finger wagged at him for the failure to fully follow through on his rhetoric about aiding the poor. But the Democrat’s hands aren't clean in this either. To his credit, John Edwards has made a credible and courageous effort to sound the warning gong about poverty, even launching a modern-day scaled down version of the old Martin Luther King, Jr.-Lyndon Johnson-Robert F. Kennedy in –the-street and legislative anti-poverty crusade. But he's been about the only Democrat to speak out consistently on poverty, and since he holds no office, he's in the least position among the top Democratic presidential contenders, to do anything about it.
Democratic contenders Obama and Clinton are in the Senate and can and say do much more about poverty than the obligatory photo-op whacks at Bush in New Orleans on the second anniversary of Katrina. But they, like other House and Senate leaders, gave no sign in the year between the first anniversary of Katrina and their trek to the Gulf this year that they were willing to fight for the billions that it would take to enact a comprehensive program to combat poverty. The Congressional Black Caucus was the only group among Democrats that pounded Congress and the Bush administration to spend billions to aid the Gulf poor. But their cry fell on deaf ears. Since then, the Caucus hasn't shown any willingness to renew the fight for the billions it demanded.
The talk about a fresh assault on poverty was dead in the water from the start. While Katrina momentarily increased empathy for the poor, it didn't fundamentally change public attitudes toward the poor. Poverty is regarded as a perplexing, intractable and insoluble problem that government programs can't or even shouldn't cure. In other words, the best cure for poverty is for the poor to get jobs and fend for themselves.
There's not much chance that this will change. Bush will exit the Gulf area quickly after his speech and head back to his Crawford, Texas ranch to continue clearing brush, biking and relaxing. In the weeks and months after that he’ll spend countless, and fruitless more hours trying to sell the Iraq war to Congress and the public. The Democratic contenders will just as quickly exit the area to get back on the campaign trail and spend countless hours hammering Bush and the Republicans for the wasteful war.
The Gulf's poor, meanwhile, will be just as numerous, scattered, dispirited, and forgotten. The talk about waging war on poverty will be tossed back on the political shelf until the third anniversary of Katrina.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.