In what may be the most catastrophic natural disaster in American history, the waters of Hurricane Katrina are washing away our national denial of just how many Americans are living in poverty, our reluctance to admit the still persistent connection of race and poverty in America, and even the political power of a conservative ideology that, for decades now, has seriously eroded the idea of the common good. Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster.
The pictures from New Orleans have stunned the nation. They have exposed the stark realities of who is suffering the most, who was left behind, who was waiting in vain for help to arrive, and who is facing the most difficult challenges of recovery. The face of those stranded in New Orleans was overwhelmingly poor and black, the very old and the very young. They were the ones who could not evacuate; had no cars or money for gas; no money for bus, train, or airfare; no budget for hotels or no friends or family with room to share or spare. They were already vulnerable before this calamity, now they were totally exposed and on their own. For days, nobody came for them. And the conditions of the places they were finally herded to ("like animals," many testified) sickened the nation.
From the reporters covering the unprecedented disaster to ordinary Americans glued to their televisions watching their reports, a shocked and even outraged response was repeated, "I didn't realize how many Americans were poor." Powerful images have emerged along with the pictures. "We have now seen what is under the rock in America," said a carpenter in Washington DC. The vulnerability of the poorest children in New Orleans has been especially riveting to many Americans, especially other parents. Many say they had trouble holding back their tears when they saw mothers with their babies stranded on rooftops crying for help or jammed into dangerous and dirty places waiting for help to arrive.
As a direct result of Katrina and its aftermath, and for the first time in many years, the media are reporting on poverty, telling Americans that New Orleans had an overall poverty rate of 28% (84% of them African-American), and a child poverty rate of almost 50% - half of all the city's children (rates only a little higher than other major cities and actually a little lower than some others). Ironically (and some might say providentially) the annual U. S. Census poverty report came out during the Hurricane's deadly assault showing that poverty had risen for the fourth straight year with 37 million Americans stuck below the poverty line - and they were the ones most stuck in New Orleans.
Katrina has revealed what was already there in America; an invisible and mostly silent poverty that we have chosen not to talk about, let alone to take responsibility for in the richest nation on earth. This week, we all saw it; and so did the rest of the world. And it made Americans feel both compassionate and ashamed. Many political leaders and commentators, across the ideological spectrum, have acknowledged the national tragedy, not just of the horrendous storm, but of the realities the flood waters have exposed. And some have suggested that if the aftermath of Katrina finally leads the nation to demand solutions to the poverty of upwards of a third of its citizens then something good might come from this terrible disaster.
That is what we must all work toward. Rescuing those still in danger, assisting those in dire need, relocating and caring for the homeless, and beginning the process of recovery and re-building are all top priorities. But dealing with the stark and shameful social and racial realities Katrina has revealed must become our longer term but clear goal. That will require a combination of public and private initiatives, the merger of personal and social responsibility, the rebuilding of both families and communities, but also the confronting of hard questions about national priorities. Most of all it will require us to make different choices.
The critical needs of poor and low-income families must become the first priority of federal and state legislatures, not the last. And, the blatant inequalities of race in America, especially in critical areas of education, jobs, health care, and housing which have come to the surface must now be addressed. Congressional pork barrel spending which aligns with political power more than human needs must be challenged as never before. That requires a complete reversal of the political logic now operating in Washington and state capitols around the country - a new moral logic must re-shape our political habits. In the face of this natural disaster, during a time of war, with already rising deficits; new budgets cuts to vital programs like food stamps and Medicaid, and more tax cuts for the wealthy in the form of estate tax repeal and capital gains and stock dividend reductions, would now be both irresponsible and shameless.
Restoring the hope of America's poorest families, renewing our national infrastructures, protecting our environmental stability, and rethinking our most basic priorities will require nothing less than a national change of heart and direction. It calls for a transformation of political ethics and governance; moving from serving private interests to ensuring the public good. If Katrina changes our political conscience and re-invigorates among us a commitment to the
common good, then even this terrible tragedy might be redeemed.