Katrina's double victims

September 09, 2005

THE HAUNTING pictures from New Orleans and other areas in the aftermath of Katrina have re-exposed America's fault lines of race and class. For many, Katrina will turn out to be an enormous inconvenience, flooding them out of a comfortable home - perhaps even a second home - and posing a definite, but manageable, setback. But for so many others, Katrina literally sank their already vulnerable existence.

Most of us watching the aftermath have been moved - perhaps even shocked - by the intensely fragile lives that many of our fellow citizens and neighbors lead. In New Orleans, where the population was nearly 70 percent black and nearly 30 percent poor, having access to transportation and cash was the difference between getting out and being stranded, or - at worst - the difference between life and death.

The unchanging reality of America as a land of haves and have-nots was also underscored by the U.S. Census Bureau, which reported last week that 20 percent of households take in 50 percent of the nation's income. And despite more than three years of economic recovery, the poverty rate has gone up for the past four years - registering at 12.7 percent in 2004 - after having gone down for seven years. While more whites became poor last year, the consequences of being poor are still worse for blacks. Since poverty among blacks is longer, deeper and more concentrated, the prospects for climbing out are not as good for blacks as they are for whites. Katrina will only exacerbate these disparities unless some priorities change.

After an initially flat-footed response, the Bush administration and Congress are coming up with a serious short-term financial package to help Katrina's victims, including $2,000 debit cards to meet families' most immediate needs. A larger test will come later this month when Congress takes up two reconciliation bills that were postponed to deal with the more pressing emergency of Katrina. One of the bills would impose mandatory cuts of nearly $35 billion on programs such as Medicaid, food stamps and student loans. The second bill offers $70 billion in tax cuts. It's certainly useful to try to curb the growth of automatic spending programs, but it's unseemly to cut programs that aim to help the poor while giving tax cuts to the rich that could increase the deficit by $35 billion.

This is not a time to lose sight of those who are already so close to the edge. Just as Katrina has reminded a lot of people of the most vulnerable among us, the storm also presents the nation with some clear moral choices. Do we continue to pursue tax and other policies that further enrich the already affluent? Washington policymakers should take their cues from the countless Americans who have opened their wallets, homes, schools and communities to those who have been displaced and devastated by the hurricane. The last thing Katrina's victims need is for Congress and the Bush administration to ignore reality and push for program cuts that hit them disproportionately hard when they are already down.

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