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After Katrina -- Poverty Is Still America’s Shame

New America Media, Commentary, Earl Ofari Hutchinson Posted: Aug 29, 2007

President Bush and the three top Democrats that want to replace him couldn’t get to New Orleans fast enough this week. The occasion, of course, was the second anniversary of the Katrina debacle.

As has done in his twelve previous treks to the Gulf since Katrina, Bush publicly boasted that he’s done everything humanly possible to get the region back on its feet. He also insisted that there is much more to be done and his administration will do it. Just as predictably, his would-be replacements Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and John Edwards lambasted Bush’s efforts as hopelessly flawed. They insisted that there is no reason to believe that he’ll improve on the anemic effort.

They all missed the real story and tragedy of Katrina: the naked face of poverty that shocked the world two years ago remains just as naked and shameful two years later. And Bush and the Democrats are to blame for it.

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. In that 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 two years ago.

The national soul searching about attacking poverty has evaporated. The nearly $100 billion that Bush says his administration has shelled out to aid the recovery effort has either been wasted on showy and ineffectual redevelopment, public works reclamation and retrenching projects, inflated construction contracts, or has flat-out been “misappropriated” (some would say “stolen”).

Not one of Bush's anti-poverty proposals – from tax breaks and grants for minority and small businesses to job training and transportation subsidies – has been enacted.

Bush deserves the blame for the failure to fully follow through on his rhetoric about aiding the poor. But the Democrats’ hands aren't clean either. To his credit, John Edwards has made a credible and courageous effort to sound the warning gong about poverty, even launching a modern-day scaled down version of the old Martin Luther King, Jr., Lyndon Johnson, Robert F. Kennedy in-street and legislative anti-poverty crusade. But he's been about the only Democrat to speak out consistently on poverty, and since he holds no office, he's in the least position among the top Democratic presidential contenders, to do anything about it.

Democratic contenders Obama and Clinton are in the Senate and can and say do much more on poverty than the obligatory photo-op criticism of Bush on the second anniversary of Katrina. But they, like other House and Senate leaders, gave no sign in the past year that they were willing to fight for the billions that it would take to enact a comprehensive program to combat poverty.

The Congressional Black Caucus was the only group among Democrats that pounded Congress and the Bush administration to spend billions to aid the Gulf poor. But their cry fell on deaf ears. Since then, the caucus hasn't shown any willingness to renew the fight for the billions it demanded.

While Katrina momentarily increased empathy for the poor, it didn't fundamentally change public attitudes toward the poor. Poverty is regarded as a perplexing, unsolvable problem that government programs can't or shouldn't cure. In other words, the best cure for poverty is for the poor to get jobs and fend for themselves.

There's not much chance that this will change. Bush will exit the Gulf area quickly after his speech and head back to his Crawford, Tex. ranch to continue his vacation. In the next weeks and months, he’ll spend countless, fruitless more hours trying to sell the Iraq War to Congress and the public.

The Democratic contenders will just as quickly leave New Orleans to get back on the campaign trail and spend countless hours hammering Bush and the Republicans for a wasteful war. The Gulf's poor, meanwhile, will be just as numerous, scattered, dispirited and forgotten. The talk about waging war on poverty will be tossed back on the political shelf until the third anniversary of Katrina.

New America Media Associate Editor Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst. His new book The Latino Challenge to Black America: Towards a Conversation between African-Americans and Hispanics (Middle Passage Press and Hispanic Economics New York) in English and Spanish will be out in October.

Related Articles:

One Year Later Katrina Didn't Close the Racial Divide

Urban America Not Prepared For Disasters

How to Destroy an African-American City

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