Poverty underlies hurricane crisis
The last week has been almost too much to fathom for many of us. It’s hard to believe that in this era of disasters, the most developed country in the world could not mount a better response to Hurricane Katrina, and come to the aid of its citizens more quickly.
For days, hurricane victims have been dying because of the conditions – social and physical – that came after the hurricane. Saturday appeared to be a turning point, when a real coordinated evacuation started moving the masses, but Saturday was at least three days late. Three days is a long time for people to survive without food, drinking water, sanitation and a rising flood level.
Perhaps the saddest pictures came from the Superdome, where evacuees were dying while waiting for help.
In many cases, the first on the scene were the disaster relief organizations – like the American Red Cross and Salvation Army. Then there were the Mississippi bass fisherman who drove their boats down to New Orleans to help searchers, or the churches that airlifted bottled water and food – Mississippi-native Bret Favre (Green Bay Packers quarterback) even had supplies headed down to the Gulf before the Federal Emergency Management Agency finished its first meeting.
The federal response was so slow, NBC television completed a telethon fund-raiser while Americans were waiting for help. Meanwhile we had to stomach that bogus, staged “briefing” President Bush received at the airport terminal after his arrival in New Orleans. What a horrible time to worry about public-relations spin.
While the pictures and video we see in newspapers and on TV tell a heartbreaking story of destruction and despair, there’s a larger story about American culture and poverty playing out.
Hurricane Katrina could not have hit a more vulnerable population. While the Gulf Coast is home to much of the cultural history of our country, it is also home to some of our country’s worst poverty. Joblessness is high in parts of the South and wages are low. And it’s getting worse.
Just last week, census figures were released showing a jump in the number of Americans living below the poverty level, up 1.1 million from 2003 to 37 million people. A four-person household earning less than $19,307 per year qualifies as below poverty level. For a two-person household, wages amounting to less than $12,334 are considered below poverty level.
Day to day, the strife of our nation’s poorest citizens slips below the radar of national media attention, but when a poor population is hit with a disaster like Hurricane Katrina, the effects of poverty are hard to ignore.
According to an Associated Press story, two in 10 households in the affected area didn’t have a car to evacuate; nearly 25 percent of people in the hardest-hit areas were below the poverty line; median household incomes in the affected area are $10,000 lower than the national average. The poorest lived in the low-lying areas most prone to flooding.
Many of the hurricane victims have no insurance – they can’t afford it. They don’t have savings – they live paycheck to paycheck. Many are single-parent families – they don’t have the same network to help them during their greatest time of need.
As displaced hurricane refugees flood into neighboring states, the true cost of poverty will reveal itself. Welfare systems will be pushed to the brink. Emergency federal spending will add to our already growing deficit. And the nominal increases in new jobs we have seen over the last few years may disappear.
The census study showed the South was the poorest region, and blacks were the poorest ethnic group. One needs only to turn on CNN to see, among ethnic groups, poor Southern blacks have been hit the hardest by the hurricane. They needed our country’s help immediately, and in a lot of ways our country failed them.
So now, as we start to turn our attention from destruction to reconstruction, let’s also address this important issue of poverty, which is obviously a primary contributing factor to the hurricane’s aftermath.
We will develop an improved system of response for future disasters of this magnitude. And we may even rebuild the city of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast communities. But will we do more to set economic policies that help in job creation (rather than move jobs overseas)? Will we recognize that low wages aren’t just bad for low-wage earners? Or will we invite disaster by allowing poverty to continue to flourish in a country that has so much wealth?
– Jim Scripps, managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune, can be reached at email@example.com