Friday, September 9, 2005

Worth thinking about

From The New Republic On-line. Registration is free, but I include the text here. I'm about to go teach, so can't comment right now, but I am looking to thinking more about why we live where we live, and how our nation has come to this sorry state:

Poverty Line
by Noam Scheiber
Post date: 09.09.05
Issue date: 09.19.05

It took a few days after New Orleans flooded for the press to
breach the mental levee blocking comments on the victims' race
and class. But, once that levee finally broke, it washed away
pretty quickly. In a furious rant on Thursday, CNN's Jack
Cafferty lashed out at journalists' unwillingness to take on the
"elephant in the room" and complained that "almost every person
we've seen, from the families stranded on their rooftops ... to
the people holed up in the Superdome, are black and poor."
Thereafter, the major networks got in on the action, and, by
Sunday, a Fox roundtable was debating Condoleezza Rice's
concession that "we do, I think, at some point, need to see that
people couldn't evacuate who were poor ... [and] understand
better how to make sure that that doesn't happen again."

The good news is that we're about to have a long overdue debate
about poverty in this country. The bad news is that most of the
commentary so far has focused only on poverty as an economic
condition. Cafferty observed that "many of [Hurricane Katrina's
poor victims] didn't follow the evacuation orders because they
didn't have the means to get out of town." Former Senator John
Edwards stressed the low rates of car ownership among New
Orleans's poor and their need to protect possessions they
couldn't afford to replace. That view was echoed among
politicians further to his left. "There's a whole segment of
society that's being left behind," wrote Representative John
Lewis in Newsweek. "When you tell people to evacuate, these
people didn't have any way to leave."

Implicit in these arguments is the idea that poor people are
pretty much like everyone else, just with less money. From this,
it follows that the remedy is primarily financial. Consider
Lewis's proposed solution not just for New Orleans but for the
problem of urban poverty in general: "[I]n rebuilding, we should
see this as an opportunity to rebuild urban America. ... There
must be a commitment of billions and billions of dollars."

But, if anything, the flooding of New Orleans teaches the
opposite lesson--that the problem of poverty isn't just
economic, it's also sociological. On Monday, The New York Times'
Jodi Wilgoren bylined what may be the most important piece of
Katrina coverage to date. Wilgoren followed two families
struggling to evacuate New Orleans in the flood's aftermath: one
white and middle class (though hardly affluent, as Wilgoren
notes), the other black and poor. The outcome of the story will
surprise no one. The first family quickly found comfortable
accommodations in a northern Louisiana hotel, then a
semi-permanent home in a nearby town. As of Saturday, the second
family was still shuffling from one endless line to
another--hungry, unshowered, unsure of its next move.

What's fascinating are the ways in which the two families
navigated, or failed to navigate, the crisis. The matriarch of
the middle-class family, a local court clerk, tapped a cousin to
secure a low corporate rate at the Lafayette Hilton. She paid
for it with her American Express card. The woman then worked
connections in local government and churches to land a scarce
rental property. She even won a dispensation from local
authorities to sneak back into her abandoned house in a
quarantined area so she could rescue some televisions and
furniture.

Needless to say, the poorer family had no such advantages. The
husband had never been out of New Orleans before; the wife had
never flown on a plane. Neither appeared to have contacts
capable of assimilating them into another community; in any
case, the concept of doing so seemed altogether unimaginable to
them. And, while the family had $2,000 in savings, they didn't
have a bank account. Their money burned up along with their
apartment in a fire that followed the flood.

Clearly, a lack of money is far from the only handicap
afflicting the poor. They lack the basic life skills, social
networks, and general sense of agency that even the slightly
more affluent--working-class people--take for granted. The poor
black family in Wilgoren's piece certainly could have benefited
from a car or a few hundred dollars in aid. But much more
valuable would have been instructions beforehand on how to open
a bank account. Everyone else learns these sorts of things by
following the example of relatives, friends, and neighbors. The
problem with acute concentrations of poverty is that they afford
few such examples.

Sociologists, of course, are keenly aware that poor people need
to be integrated into society as much as they need financial
help. But, sadly, there isn't much of a political constituency
for this idea. Liberals like Lewis tend to focus either on
redressing racial grievances or on the immediate needs of their
constituents: food, health care, a subsistence wage. And, with
the needs so great, it's hard to blame them. Conservatives do
frequently invoke sociology in their analysis of poverty. But,
too often, they do it either as an excuse for not spending
money, or out of a preoccupation with personal morality. Yet,
while out-of-wedlock births, for example, are clearly a problem
in New Orleans, they don't entirely explain why so few poor,
black New Orleanians were incapable of protecting themselves
from the flood. (The black couple in Wilgoren's piece was
married, after all.)

It turns out that poverty, like disaster relief, is one of those
problems that demands pragmatism and technical competence rather
than ideology. In the 1990s, technocrats in the Clinton
administration ramped up initiatives like Hope VI and Section 8
housing vouchers--two highly effective programs for integrating
the poor into mixed-income neighborhoods. Technocrats outside
the administration have led the way since then. In Washington,
for example, two former management consultants recently founded
a publicly funded boarding school called SEED, which imparts
life skills and career expectations every bit as much as it
tends to the economic privation of its poor, urban students.
SEED graduates attend college at remarkably high rates. Both
programs reflect the spirit of nonideological problem-solving
that has been out of fashion amid the hyper-partisanship of the
Bush era. Now that Katrina has revived our interest in poverty,
it'd be a shame if she didn't revive that spirit, too.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at TNR.

40 Comments:

At 7:58 PM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

There are so many hard questions.

[1] What can we do to help the poor? A quarter of the country works for less than $8.70 an hour. There is a level of poverty at which you are essentially cut off from civilization. It is around you but you aren't part of it.

[2] Why do those better off allow the poverty around them? These people are of greater concern, because unless they change, they will remain unwilling to help anyone but themselves. "Self-reliance" (or laissez faire "greed") is now the national myth. How do we change that?

[3] Others have made this point more clearly -- but one of the messages of Katrina is the fragile thinness of civilization. How quickly a disaster that takes all our food and water makes us helpless to the dark abusive natures of a few. I'm not really talking about the handful of looters in NOLA, I'm talking about the immediate manipulations of the oil markets for profit, just as those managing the energy markets in California after the failure of the electric grid did everything they could to exacerbate the demand problem and garner profits (and legislative "relief" from competitive forces) at the expense of the helpless.

My overarching concern is that this is as good as we can be in the most resource-rich country in the world at the richest moment in history.

This is our peak. And we're horrible people.

And this moment, which was never going to be more than a moment, is over. The free lunch of gasoline cheaper than water is finished. We are Cinderella at the ball and in a few minutes it will be midnight and all the advantages around us made possible by cheap oil will vanish.

We've just demonstrated our reverence for each other in the aftermath of several serial national disasters, only the latest of which is Katrina.

Now begins the long slow slide into twilight and the world will need human leadership to survive. America will obviously not be the nation that provides this leadership; worse, at this point, America is the gravest threat.

/e

 
At 10:35 PM , Anonymous ehj2 said...

Chris Floyd's current column, "No Direction Home" written for the Global Eye in the Moscow Times, rings true for me.

"Nothing that happened last week -- the mass destruction in the Mississippi Delta, the obliteration of the city of New Orleans, the murderous abandonment of thousands of people to death, chaos and disease -- will change the Bush Administration or American politics at all. Not one whit."

"Today we look at old footage of Adolf Hitler and wonder how on earth such a pathetic and ludicrous creature could ever have commanded the adoration and obedience of tens of millions of people."

"The fact that a few conservative commentators and politicians are making mild criticisms of Bush means nothing. Their "attacks" amount to no more than this: Gosh, old George really dropped the ball on this one. He'd better turn the PR thing around, or he might lose some of the "political capital" he needs to "advance his second-term agenda." That's it. That's as far as it goes."

"After all, they fully support the "agenda" -- more war, more tax cuts for the rich, more impunity for corporations, more welfare for the energy barons, more coddling of elite investors, more state power for Christian extremists, more media consolidation, more kickbacks, more easy money for greasy palms. And now that Karl Rove has finally figured out his response -- employing brazen lies to smear state and local officials -- you will very quickly see the conservative critics fall into lockstep with the porcine counselor's program. By the time Congress holds hearings into the disaster, they'll be singing love songs to the Leader."

"There is no political crisis whatsoever, if by that phrase you mean something that will cause Bush to alter his policies. The war in Iraq will go on. The war against the poor will go on. The slow destruction of middle-class security and stability will go on. The long and ferocious right-wing campaign against the very idea of a "common good" will go on, unabated -- perhaps even strengthened -- as it faces a backlash from the half of the American public that does accept the reality of what they saw in New Orleans and all along the Gulf Coast."

"This is what you must understand: Bush and his faction do not care if they have 'the consent of the governed' or not. They are not interested in governing at all, in responding to the needs and desires and will of the people. They are only interested in ruling, in using the power of the state to force their radical agenda of elitist aggrandizement and ideological crankery on the nation, and on the world."

/e

p.s. and be sure to read the annotations for the article at the Moscow Times.

 
At 8:03 AM , Blogger shrinkykitten said...

One thing that annoys me about the article is the assumption that poor people don't know how to open bank accounts. That may be true in some cases, but more than likely there are two reasons for not having them:
1. Distrust of banks. Many poor people especially feel as though banks will not be trustworthy in handling their money and will charge them too many fees costing them too much of their hard-earned money.
2. Some poor people *cannot* get bank accounts due to poor credit or lack of ID (an issue for illegal immigrants, esp) or because they have done something to get a notation in the chex system (which stays there for years causing them to be unable to get an account). This puts them at risk of other places that charge huge fees to cash checks (there are tons of these places in my city and neighborhood - which is a poorer area), and at risk of being mugged because they *have* to carry large sums of cash.

Sorry for my little rant.

 
At 9:42 AM , Blogger Dorcasina said...

Oh I have so much to say and too many household tasks to get time to respond to all these thoughtful points--or even to comment on the original article. Maybe tonight. Shrinky Kitten, I agree with your criticism--too often the "failures" of the poor to subscribe to middle-class truths (i.e., your money is safest in a bank) is attributed only to "ignorance" (or, more malevolently, to stupidity) while the real history that gave rise to their mistrust of social, financial, and medical institutions (syphilis experiments, anyone?) are just discounted as part of their "conspiracy" theory/bad attitude. I'm not a conspiracy nut by any means, but I'd be hard pressed to see this country's treatment of the poor, especially in the last 30 years, as anything other than a conspiracy of negligence, something that has gone on in plain sight with the tacit acceptance of virtually all Americans.

 
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