News & Politics

Katrina Lessons, One Year Later

At least for one fleeting moment, we were talking about American poverty.
For one week last September, the unthinkable happened, America's poor suddenly became the rage. The shocking and tormenting sight of thousands of poor blacks fleeing in headlong panic for their lives from Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters jolted the nation and the world. President Bush reeling from the battering he took in the media for his initial comatose response to the Katrina victims scrambled fast and talked tough about assailing poverty. In a televised speech in New Orleans' famed Jackson Square, Bush told the nation "All of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well."

The rhetoric about aiding the poor quickly flew hot and heavy. Congressional leaders vowed to budget millions more for the poor. Business leaders vowed to pump more dollars into job and skills training programs. Private charities vowed to launch new fundraising drives for the poor. Even many hard-bitten, laissez faire conservatives who reflexively oppose massive government spending programs on the poor screamed at Bush to do something about poverty.

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 even dreamed that Katrina guilt would force Americans to engage in the much needed, and much avoided soul searching dialogue on poverty.

That was a year ago. The national roar about attacking poverty has fizzled to a whimper. Yet, the poor are still as numerous, needy, and thanks to Katrina, even more dispersed nationally. Census figures released weeks before Katrina struck revealed that the number of poor had relentlessly climbed during Bush's White House years. Nearly forty million Americans, 12 million of whom were children, were poor. Census figures in the year after Katrina will likely show little change in the poverty numbers.  Thousands of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast poor are still jobless, and live in FEMA constructed trailers, and subsist on private donations.

Since his Jackson Square speech Bush has mentioned poverty only six times. He made no mention of it in his State of the Union Speech in January and did not utter a word about poverty in his speech to the NAACP convention in July. Not one of his anti-poverty proposals which included bigger tax breaks and grants for minority and small business, a ramp up in job training, and child care subsidies, boosts in transportation funding and an urban homesteading program went anywhere. They fell victim to budget slashes, Congressional inaction or opposition, and public indifference. A minimum wage hike, and increase in funding for public housing, and an expansion of job training programs, and the earned income tax credit, that would help the wage earning poor, died quick deaths in Congress.

Democrats piled blame for the wash down in the post Katrina roar on poverty on Bush and the Republicans. But the Democrats did their part to dampen the talk. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, and former Democratic Vice Presidential candidate John Edwards flailed away at Bush for his Katrina ineptitude, spoke in vague terms about Two Americas, and made a fleeting plea for a Marshall type plan to fight poverty, a plan doomed from the moment the call was made. While Edwards barnstorms the country crusading for more government initiatives to aid the poor, he holds no official position in the Democratic Party, and is largely a lone voice crying in the wilderness on poverty.

Democratic House and Senate leaders have given no sign that they are willing to fight for the billions that it would take mount a comprehensive program to combat poverty. The Congressional Black Caucus is the sole group among Democrats that still show some zeal for waging a fight on poverty. But the Caucus is nearly totally isolated and marginalized in Congress and has been stymied in its efforts to get any effective legislation passed.

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 them. A fervent belief in the Protestant ethic of hard work, personal responsibility, and self-initiative are deeply ingrained in American attitudes. Success and merit are intimately connected, and one can't be attained without the other. Poverty is regarded as a perplexing, intractable and insoluble malady that government programs can't or even shouldn't cure.

In a wide-ranging study on American attitudes and beliefs about the poor published in the Journal of Social Issues in 2001, a team of psychologists found that attitudes toward the poor were significantly more negative than attitudes toward the middle class. Respondents were most likely to blame poor people themselves for their poverty.

The poor are too diffuse and amorphous, have only a scattering of anti-poverty focused activist groups, and no full time congressional lobbyists. They can't dump money into Democrat and Republican campaign coffers, and many are non-voters. That makes them even more politically expendable. 

One year after Katrina's shock, the talk about warring on poverty turned out to be just that, talk. There's no reason to think that will change.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.