Storm reveals flaws in how we treat poor in our society

September 11, 2005|By C. Fraser Smith

PRESIDENT BUSH'S people at Homeland Security and the Federal Emergency Management Agency say they were sometimes out of the Katrina loop. We thought they were the loop.

Will that lame report give cover to Mr. Bush who, at one point, blamed the "bureaucracy"? Maybe, but in a sense, he is the bureaucracy. We are informed that a commission or a task force or a panel will try to find out what went wrong. Perhaps it can try to find out where the buck stops.

Recriminations and second-guessing will continue, no doubt. There's a lot to learn and re-learn. Some perspective will no doubt help us all.

It's been observed that Americans think there's a solution for everything. It's an endearing, maybe even an ennobling, quality. While older nations seem to realize certain immutable forces in life, certain enduring dilemmas, Americans repair instinctively to the Can Do Spirit. Katrina laid waste to an area bigger than the size of Great Britain, 90,000 square miles or so. So? Fix it!

In more sober moments after such events, we say something has to change. But will there be change?

Local officials, academics and newspapers raised concern for years about disaster lurking behind the levees. They must have been infuriated to hear people say such an event was never contemplated. These truth tellers are now blamed, subtly, for failing to press their point. Their budgets were cut, and they were too nice about it. They didn't raise enough hell.

After 9/11, we got a road map for change. That map is back in the governmental glove compartment.

And there's a reason. It's not just the indifference of various officials. You can argue, as I would, that an administration with low regard for government will never be ready when government action is needed most. You have to live and breathe this stuff.

But there's an even more fundamental reason change must come. We are on the back of a tiger: a very complicated way of life. It's a system that can't withstand much alteration. A rumor of gasoline shortages, for example, put Baltimore into gridlock Sept. 2. What would a real shortage mean to commerce, to daily life, to relief efforts?

We are a privileged society with an underclass that can't keep pace. Every city has a population incapable of taking care of itself in such a situation. A storm that lives up to its potential - one that doesn't just tease us into complacency - will drown those who are forced to ride it out. The poor are living like the rest of us, relatively speaking, but they can't absorb any disruption in their difficult lives.

In the 1960s, two New York City social scientists wrote a book called Regulating the Poor. Here was their thesis, over simplified: Society deals with poor people when poor people mount the barricades, when they riot, when they threaten commerce and the "haves." To keep that from happening or to quell the fires once they've flared, we turn on the relief spigot: we pass a food stamp law; we find merit in tax credits; we make it possible for the jobless to get training; we pass legislation enabling the poor to live in decent housing. We help them before they hurt us.

We failed the poor in New Orleans long before the hurricane hit. We failed them by pretending they don't exist, by marginalizing them, by making them expendable. Now our failure is out there for the world to see.

This hurricane took us back once again to questions about Iraq and its relationship to Vietnam. We were confronted even before the Gulf Coast catastrophe with the "guns and butter" challenge posed for President Lyndon B. Johnson: Could we save the world from communism while attending to poverty on the home front?

There are differences, of course, between then and now. Then, it was a choice between fighting poverty and fighting a war. Today, the question is whether we're adequately financing a war while thinking, not about the poor, but about another tax break for the very wealthy.

That's something we could change.

C. Fraser Smith is news director for WYPR-FM. His column appears Sundays.

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