Fighting poverty after the storm

September 20, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- In his national address last week on the recovery efforts after Hurricane Katrina, President Bush took an artful shot at the always touchy topic of race. He managed to talk about it without really talking about it.

By my computer-assisted count, he did mention "minority" twice in his text, each time as part of "minority-owned."

And he mentioned "racial discrimination" once, but only as a historical artifact, not a current fact.

And he mentioned "poverty" four times in a context that joined it to racial discrimination and minority ownership, which made poverty sound as though it were a problem only for blacks.

"As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well," Mr. Bush said in his address. "That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created."

I actually liked the speech if for no other reason than its grappling with race and poverty, two subjects that get too little attention until a catastrophe such as Katrina comes along.

Mr. Bush could have avoided talking about race and poverty were his approval ratings not being dragged down to record lows, partly because of a widespread perception that he doesn't care enough about the poor, black people left stranded in New Orleans.

So he responded by doing what conservatives usually ridicule in liberals: He opened up the federal government's wallet to a wish list of projects that might total more than $200 billion, the most expensive government relief and reconstruction operation in U.S. history.

Maybe the Beatles were wrong. Maybe money can buy you love. President Bush seems to hope so.

But will his ideas to help poor people rebuild their lives really work? Some show more promise than others.

In fact, the president does not even have to try to imitate how liberals behave to come up with good ideas to help poor Americans improve their lives. Some of the market-friendly conservative ideas on his agenda show a lot of promise in helping poor folks in New Orleans and elsewhere rebuild their lives.

For example, nothing helps you build a better life more than a good education. Where there is space in good schools, public or private, the government should give the parents of New Orleans' 77,000 displaced public school students full tuition vouchers so they can enroll their children in better schools.

And instead of jumping into a massive project to buy hundreds of thousands of new mobile homes for the displaced, offer housing vouchers to help them occupy whatever conventional housing is available.

Bill Clinton's White House faced a similar challenge after the 1994 earthquake in Southern California. The federal government responded with emergency rental vouchers based on the Section 8 rent subsidy program. More than 10,000 of an estimated 20,000 displaced renters used the vouchers. Section 8 receives bipartisan support partly because low-income families can choose where they want to live instead of being directed into what might be new concentrations of poverty. President Bush's proposals to offer financial help or tax-free savings accounts for job training, education and child care could similarly expand the choices for those displaced by Katrina.

The great lasting tragedy of the victims of Hurricane Katrina is how many of them, weeks after the big storm, remain homeless, clinging to hopes and desperate for help. The more government can help them take charge of their lives and organize their affairs, the better equipped they will be not only to recover from the tragedy of Katrina, but also to face future challenges more effectively.

Clarence Page is a columnist for The Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Thursdays in The Sun.

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