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Poverty Still Missing from Vocabulary on Katrina Third Anniversary

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Aug 22, 2008

Editor's Note: The presidential candidates have been virtually mute on the campaign trail about the real story and tragedy of Katrina: the naked face of poverty Katrina exposed to the world three years ago, writes the commentator. Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book is The Ethnic Presidency: How Race Decides the Race to the White House.

Presumptive presidential contender Barack Obama and Republican rival John McCain have made splashy, big media photo-op visits to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast since the Katrina horror. Obama says he will push a sweeping and costly Katrina recovery plan. McCain, on the other hand, took some heat for voting against the billions the Senate allocated for Katrina recovery projects. But that was when he was Senator McCain. As a presidential candidate, McCain now calls President Bush's response to the Katrina disaster "terrible and disgraceful." Though McCain is vague about whether he'll propose billions more for Katrina recovery, he at least acknowledged Bush's failure to deal with the crisis.

But the two candidates have been virtually mute on the campaign trail about the real story and tragedy of Katrina: the naked face of poverty Katrina exposed to the world three years ago. The dire poverty remains just as naked and shameful three years later.

A recent report by the Kaiser Family Foundation on the experiences of New Orleans residents three years after the debacle found that the overwhelming majority of residents say that the city is even more divided than ever by poverty. Nearly 40 percent of adults and children in the city are poor. That's the same number that was poor three years ago.

Obama and McCain are not insensitive to the poverty issue from a policy standpoint. Obama's campaign Web site spells out detailed proposals to attack poverty that include a massive increase in job training funding, housing tax credits, boosting the minimum wage and expanding uninsured health care programs. McCain talks about vouchers, tax credits, expanding health care programs and providing more funds for private industry job training programs.

But they have been loath to use their campaign stump as a bully pulpit to talk about poverty.

That reluctance is no surprise. For weeks after the shocking scenes of the black poor fleeing for their lives from the floodwaters in New Orleans, Bush and the Democrats talked tough about a full court press on poverty. For an instant, talk of fighting poverty became almost respectable in business, public philanthropy, congressional and White House circles. 

In a post-Katrina assessment of public opinion on poverty, more Americans agreed that the government should do more to end poverty.

Civil rights leaders, the Congressional Black Caucus, and anti-poverty groups saw an opening and pounded on the Bush administration and Congress to do something about whittling down the ranks of the estimated 35 to 40 million Americans that still wallow in poverty.

That was three years ago. Since then, the national soul search about attacking poverty has evaporated. The irony is that by a thin majority, New Orleans residents say they are optimistic about the city's future. But a majority of the residents in the Kaiser Foundation survey still say that Congress and the nation has forgotten its promise to fully rebuild the city, and to deal with the poverty that created so many of the problems in New Orleans before, during and after Katrina.

Though Bush deserves the blame for the failure to fully follow through on his rhetoric about aiding the poor, the Democrats' hands aren't clean either. John Edwards was the only Democratic presidential contender to talk up the need to reengage Congress and the nation in the poverty battle. That didn't last, and even before his exit from the campaign trail in January, Edwards had pretty much abandoned his Great Society talk about pumping billions into an anti- poverty crusade.

For a brief moment, mostly shamed by Edward's attention-getting talk about poverty, Obama and Hillary Clinton made the poverty fight a campaign issue. They hit Bush hard on the Katrina failure and specifically cited the poverty that became the ugly face of Katrina.
But they quickly dropped the issue in their campaign talks. Neither gave any sign that if elected they would fight for the billions that it will take to enact a comprehensive program to combat poverty. 

The Congressional Black Caucus still is the only group among Democrats that periodically lash Congress and the Bush administration for not spending more on the Gulf poor. But their cry continues to fall on deaf ears. And it hasn't shown much willingness to renew the fight for the billions it once demanded.

On the third anniversary of the Katrina nightmare, Bush, McCain and Obama will make the ritual pledges to do more to fulfill the largely unfilled promises of rebuilding the Gulf. And to help those still in dire need. But even as they make their pledge, many of the Gulf's poor still remain just as numerous, scattered, dispirited and forgotten. The talk about waging war on poverty, if mentioned at all, will again be just as quickly dropped.

Related Articles:

One Year Later Katrina Didn't Close the Racial Divide

Katrina Lessons One Year Later: Talk About Katrina Poverty Was Just That, Talk

After Katrina -- Poverty Is Still Americas Shame

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