Rebuild must address poverty

National leaders have publicly agreed that poverty augmented Hurricane Katrina's awful effects - but will they address the issue when rebuilding?

BY SUSAN KIM | BALTIMORE | September 17, 2005

"A lot of African-American families want more choice."

—Amy Liu

National leaders have publicly agreed that poverty augmented Hurricane Katrina's awful effects - but will they address the issue when rebuilding?

On Friday, in a day of prayer at the National Cathedral, President Bush acknowledged that persistent poverty and racial injustice became sorely evident during Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath.

"As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality," Bush said.

"Some of the greatest hardships fell upon citizens already facing lives of struggle, the elderly, the vulnerable and the poor,"' he said. "As we rebuild homes and businesses, we will renew our promise as a land of equality and decency and one day Americans will look back at the response to Hurricane Katrina and say that our country grew not only in prosperity but in character and justice."

Many are hopeful that substantive, long-term policy shifts will bear out the Bush Administration's rhetoric. Many disaster responders say they have observed, for decades, how poverty makes people far more vulnerable to disasters of all sizes and types.

Researchers at the Brookings Institution believe that federal policies helped create the hyper-concentration of poverty in New Orleans - and that the same policies have helped lock people into cycles of poverty for generations in cities across the nation.

Conditions were harsh in New Orleans way before Hurricane Katrina hit, pointed out Amy Liu, deputy director of the Metropolitan Policy Program at the Brookings Institution. "And federal policy has had a big role. I want to remind everyone of how bad the concentrated poverty in New Orleans is - how very, harsh severe concentrations of poverty existed in New Orleans. And then those concentrations were located below sea level."

Poor families in New Orleans were too isolated - socially and economically - to evacuate and prepare for a disaster, said Liu. "Federal policy has created enclaves of low-income neighborhoods - building all the public housing in these barrack-style isolated areas in the city, and in high-rise apartments that isolated families, that really isolated whole neighborhoods."

As New Orleans rebuilds, Liu and others want to make sure the nation learns from experience. "We need to believe in rebuilding mixed income neighborhoods throughout the city of New Orleans. We need to tear down concentrations of dilapidated public housing. We also need to give these families more choice of what kinds of neighborhoods they can live in. We need to give them housing vouchers so they can choose housing in the private marketplace. A lot of African-American families want more choice."

Brookings' Metropolitan Policy Program continues to compile research about tools and methods related to relocation and rebuilding.

Hurricane Katrina's aftermath should be a wake-up call to other cities, said Liu. "A number of cities have high concentrations of poverty - cities like Houston, Atlanta, Baltimore, St. Louis, and Los Angeles. There are lessons to be learned here about the importance of building the right kinds of neighborhoods for low-income families and particularly black families."

The rebuild in New Orleans will be a massive undertaking, experts have said. At least half the homes are thought to be uninhabitable. Some parishes lost every school.

On Thursday in a public address regarding Hurricane Katrina response, President Bush called for "bold action."

Bush proposed establishment of worker recovery accounts providing up to $5,000 for job training, education and child care during survivors' search for employment. He also proposed creation of a Gulf Opportunity Zone in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama offering tax breaks to encourage businesses to remain in the devastated region and new businesses to open. The White House reported Friday that each of those initiatives would cost about $2 billion.

Bush said he wanted to get evacuees out of shelters by mid-October and into apartments and other homes, with assistance from the government. He said he would work with Congress to ensure that states were reimbursed for caring for evacuees.

"When the federal government fails to meet such an obligation, I as president am responsible for the problem, and for the solution,'" said Bush. "This government will learn the lessons of Hurricane Katrina."

What else will "bold action" entail? Ideally, the issues of poverty and class must be considered in long-term rebuilding, urged the Rev. John McCullough, executive director of humanitarian agency Church World Service (CWS).

"No doubt race is an important factor in the Gulf Coast...but class is also a critical factor," said McCullough. "As we looked at Katrina, we were concerned about people of color," but McCullough said the debate now should be focused "more broadly on poverty and class."

McCullough, an African-American, said New Orleans survivors were "people victimized by the authorities" who had failed to "use the resources at their disposal."

Yet Katrina's aftermath has the potential to reopen discussion of race and poverty in a positive way, he added. "This should help us as Americans to look at the responsibility of one for the other."

Like Liu, McCullough said he hoped the lessons learned during Katrina's aftermath will imprint the recovery process. "The way we assist Katrina’s most vulnerable survivors in rebuilding their lives over the long haul will be a litmus test - and can be a model - of how we must proceed as a nation in closing the gaping divide in this country. The world is watching us."

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