For one week last September, the unthinkable happened: America's poor suddenly became the rage. The shocking and tormenting sight of thousands of poor blacks fleeing in headlong panic for their lives from Hurricane Katrina's floodwaters jolted the nation and the world. President Bush, reeling from the battering he took in the media for his initial comatose response to the Katrina victims, scrambled fast and talked tough about assailing poverty. In a televised speech in New Orleans' famed Jackson Square, Bush told the nation, "All of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well."
The rhetoric about aiding the poor quickly flew hot and heavy. Congressional leaders vowed to budget millions more for the poor. Business leaders vowed to pump more dollars into job- and skills-training programs. Private charities vowed to launch new fund-raising drives for the poor. Even many hard-bitten, laissez-faire conservatives who reflexively oppose massive government spending programs on the poor screamed at Bush to do something about poverty.
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 even dreamed that Katrina guilt would force Americans to engage in the much-needed (and much-avoided) soul-searching dialogue on poverty.
That was a year ago. The national roar about attacking poverty has fizzled to a whimper. Yet, the poor are still as numerous, needy—and thanks to Katrina—even more dispersed nationally.
Census figures released weeks before Katrina struck revealed that the number of poor had relentlessly climbed during Bush's White House years. Nearly 40 million Americans, 12 million of whom are children, were poor. Census figures in the year after Katrina will likely show little change in the poverty numbers. Thousands of New Orleans and Gulf Coast poor are still jobless, now living in FEMA-provided trailers and subsisting on private donations.
Since his Jackson Square speech, Bush has mentioned poverty only six times. He made no mention of it in his State of the Union Speech in January and did not utter a word about poverty in his speech to the NAACP convention in July. Not one of his anti-poverty proposals—which included bigger tax breaks and grants for minority and small business, a ramp-up in job training and child-care subsidies, boosts in transportation funding and an urban homesteading program—went anywhere.
The proposals fell victim to budget slashes, congressional inaction, or opposition and public indifference. A minimum-wage hike, an increase in funding for public housing, an expansion of job-training programs and the earned-income tax credit, all of which would help the wage-earning poor, died quick deaths in Congress.
Democrats piled blame for the wash-down in the post-Katrina roar on poverty on Bush and the Republicans. But Democrats did their part to dampen the talk. Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean and former Democratic vice presidential candidate John Edwards flailed away at Bush for his Katrina ineptitude, spoke in vague terms about Two Americas and made a fleeting plea for a Marshall-type plan to fight poverty—a plan doomed from the moment the call was made. While Edwards barnstorms the country crusading for more government initiatives to aid the poor, he holds no official position in the Democratic Party, and is largely a lone voice crying in the wilderness.
Democratic House and Senate leaders have given no sign that they are willing to fight for the billions that it would take to mount a comprehensive program to combat poverty. The Congressional Black Caucus is the sole group among Democrats that still shows some zeal for a fight on poverty, but the Caucus is nearly totally isolated and marginalized in Congress, and has been stymied in its efforts to get effective legislation passed.
The talk about a fresh assault on poverty was dead in the water from the start. While Katrina momentarily increased empathy for the poor, it didn't fundamentally change public attitudes toward them. A fervent belief in the Protestant ethic of hard work, personal responsibility and self-initiative is deeply ingrained American attitudes. Success and merit are intimately connected, and one can't be attained without the other. Poverty is regarded as a perplexing, intractable and insoluble malady that government programs can't or even shouldn't cure.
In a wide-ranging study on American attitudes and beliefs about the poor, published in the Journal of Social Issues in 2001, a team of psychologists found that attitudes toward the poor were significantly more negative than attitudes toward the middle class. Respondents were most likely to blame poor people themselves for their poverty.
The poor are too diffuse and amorphous. They have only a scattering of anti-poverty activist groups and no full-time congressional lobbyists. They can't dump money into Democrat and Republican campaign coffers, and many are non-voters. That makes them even more politically expendable.
One year after Katrina's shock, the talk about warring on poverty turned out to be just that—talk. There's no reason to think that will change.
Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social-issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book "The Emerging Black GOP Majority" (Middle Passage Press, September 2006).
I agree with the doctor here. This administration doesn't give a damn about the poor or suffering whether made poor by Katrina or other circumstances. This train has to self-destruct because too many American citizens are callously on board. It will self-destruct because a blind and stupid conductor can't avoid the obstructions that fate and faith will send that way.
Many caring and sensible American also believe in personal responsibility and uplift, and have changed their lives PARTIALLY because of it. The same caring and sensible persons are not blind and stupid enough to believe that all the have-lots got to be have-lots solely by personal responsibility and uplift. I would venture to say that none of the have-lots got to be a have-lots solely on the basis of personal responsibility and personal uplift.
Take the federal government's protection and provisions totally away or out of the equation and watch what the have-lots will do to the have-nots. We have seen this happen many times in the past. Black and poor folks should know well not to fall for this bullshit.
Because I believe in growing; lately, I have been reading and evaluating the writings of Shelby Steele, Thomas Sowell, Juan Williams, and Walter Williams. Walter Williams is the ultra-nut of the group. I thought Thomas Sowell was crazy until I learned of Walter Williams' ignorant butt. You can catch him hosting the Rust Limpbaugh charade on occasions. These brothers are black, smart, and of a different opinion or approach than most black and poor people toward government and society. I'm not impressed so far despite their scholarship and accomplishments. Education/scholarship is supposed to make you smarter not the opposite.
I won't mention Clarence Thomas here who I'm convinced would have voted against Brown v. Board of Education.
- Ray Carter