It took Hurricane Katrina to remind the media and political establishment that there are poor people in America–37 million of them, according to the latest Census Bureau report, up 1.1 million from 2003 (the fourth consecutive year under George W. Bush during which the figure has risen). That the people left stranded without cars in storm-ravaged New Orleans were disproportionately poor and black is a shameful reminder of how the fault lines of race and class continue to determine which communities are most susceptible to risk.
Even so, it remains to be seen whether policy-makers will acknowledge that the inequities vividly captured on television after Katrina are neither confined to the Gulf region nor limited to moments when natural disasters strike. “The issues we are crying about in New Orleans are very severe, but they happen every day on a smaller scale in communities across America,” notes Angela Glover Blackwell, the founder of Policylink, a nonprofit organization that advocates innovative ways to address regional inequities. It goes largely unnoticed when people living in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty lack access to safe parks and supermarkets that sell fresh vegetables; when their children register unusually high rates of asthma; when exclusionary land policies prevent people from moving out. Yet the cumulative toll of these man-made disparities is more deadly over time than the damage wrought by natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. “Where you live in America is increasingly a proxy for opportunity,” explains Blackwell. “It determines whether you grow up next to a toxic dump, whether you are near safe, accessible parks and sidewalks, whether your children go to good public schools, whether you have access to transportation and quality jobs, whether you live a healthy lifestyle, even how long you live.”
Indeed, a June study found that in the Chicago area life expectancy in the more affluent Northwest Side was 75 to 80; the figure plummeted to 60 for blacks in the poorest neighborhoods on the South Side. As in New Orleans, the latter neighborhoods were not only disproportionately impoverished but also disproportionately African-American, thanks to decades of discriminatory housing policies and white flight from cities. “Blacks are about seven times more likely to live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty than whites,” says John Powell, director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at Ohio State University.
It’s for this reason that Powell told an interfaith coalition a few years ago that “the civil rights movement in the twenty-first century is about space”–that is, about undoing the patterns of residential segregation that have made poor black people increasingly invisible and isolated. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, conservatives like George Will have taken to blaming lax moral standards–too many single mothers and unsupervised teens–for conditions in inner-city neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans. Such behavioral arguments ignore the public policy decisions that have fueled the concentration of poverty in cities like New Orleans, which during the 1990s ranked second among all large metropolitan areas in terms of locating subsidized housing in extremely poor neighborhoods and first for locating such housing in predominantly black neighborhoods. In a study of how race and sprawl have shaped greater New Orleans, David Rusk, former mayor of Albuquerque and a leading advocate of more equitable regional development, found that 49 percent of the city’s black residents in 1990 lived in high-poverty neighborhoods–communities where schools were overcrowded, the tax base was eroding and the streets were unsafe. Only 6 percent of whites lived in such neighborhoods. Rusk labeled these run-down areas “deadly communities,” a term that might have acquired greater currency by now were the racial patterns reversed.