Five days before Hurricane Katrina struck, 100 people gathered at a local Catholic Church in eastern New Orleans. They were there to talk about the city’s astronomically high poverty rate. This was not a dry gathering of academics, local and state officials, and business leaders. They were community residents, welfare recipients, ex-offenders and antipoverty activists. Most were black. Many did not have cars and had to take buses to get to the meeting. That wasn’t unusual. Nearly one out of three city residents doesn’t have a car. The participants felt they were in a race against time to combat the crisis–the poverty rate in New Orleans is more than double the national average. The city’s poor had grown more numerous and more desperate than ever.
Whenever I have visited friends who live in neighborhoods away from the glitter of the French Quarter and other tourist spots, I’ve been struck by the dire poverty, the legions of homeless, the large number of abandoned and run-down buildings, the pockmarked streets and sidewalks. New Orleans is the classic tale of two cities: one showy, middle-class and white; the other poor, downtrodden and low-income black. It was a city that didn’t wait for a disaster to happen; grinding poverty and neglect had already wreaked that disaster on thousands.
What happened after Katrina added to the misery was predictable. Bush’s bumbling and the bungling of FEMA turned relief efforts into a nightmare. That virtually guaranteed that some blacks out of criminal greed and others out of sheer desperation and panic would take to the streets in an orgy of looting and mayhem. It was equally predictable how some state and federal officials, and some in the media, would respond. They instantly branded the looters animals and thugs. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco said soldiers should shoot to kill to restore order.
The same day Katrina struck, something else happened that also tells much about the Bush Administration’s callous disregard for the poor. The Census Bureau released a report that found the number of poor Americans has jumped even higher since Bush took office in 2000, with blacks at the bottom of the economic totem pole. Bush’s war and economic policies have added to their woes. His tax cuts redistributed billions to the rich and corporations. The Iraq War has drained billions from cash-starved job training, health and education programs. Increased dependence on foreign oil has driven gas and oil prices skyward. Corporate downsizing, outsourcing and industrial flight have further fueled America’s poverty crisis, which has slammed young blacks, like those who ransacked stores in New Orleans, the hardest of all. Their unemployment rate is double and in some parts of the country triple that of white males.
During Bush’s years, state and federal cutbacks in job training and skills programs, the brutal competition for low- and semi-skilled service and retail jobs from immigrants, and the refusal of many employers to hire those with criminal records have further hammered black communities and added to the depression-level unemployment figures among young blacks. The tale of poverty is more evident in the nearly 1 million blacks behind bars, the HIV/AIDS rampage in black communities, the sea of black homeless people and the raging drug and gang violence that rips apart many black communities.
The looting and poverty in New Orleans put an ugly public face on a crisis that Bush Administration policies have made worse. The millions in America who grow poorer and more desperate are bitter testament to those failures. The pity is that it took Bush’s criminal incompetence and Mother Nature for the world to see that.