It wasn’t the wind that separated the rich from the poor
As government officials bicker over who failed whom after Hurricane Katrina, Americans do what they can, in ways large and small, to help those in need. But as Americans react, first with horror and gruesome fascination, then sympathy and charity, many Americans also reacted to the disaster in a new way – with disgust and embarrassment.Typically, we can’t get enough of disaster. Even now, film of the airliners crashing into the World Trade Center commands our rapt attention. And certainly, the initial images after Katrina, of boats on roads and casinos in parks in Biloxi, Miss., kept us riveted.But the first film out of New Orleans had most Americans scrambling for the remote. Images of mothers, fathers, and children, screaming and crying shamelessly for help, left viewers discomforted. As one viewer put it, “They shouldn’t put those people on TV like that. It’s embarrassing.”Embarrassing? To whom? Embarrassing to the father whose child needs food, or water, or a diaper? Embarrassing to the elderly woman left to fend for herself, who needs medicine or dry clothes? No. It’s embarrassing to us, dry at home, embarrassing because the survivors are poor, who live day-to-day in the sort of poverty to which we don’t want to admit could still be possible in the richest nation on the planet.
Fifteen percent of us live below the poverty line, with even more close to it. The poverty line for a 65-year-old is $9,500 – try living on that for a year. The situation is acute in New Orleans, where nearly 25 percent of all households fall below the poverty line. In a city of roughly a half million, 10 emergency shelters, including the Super Dome, were set up to accommodate the 100,000 residents too poor to leave because they didn’t have a car, or couldn’t afford any other means out of the city, much less a place to stay even if they could get out.And once the hurricane passed, armed gangs took to the streets, looting stores seemingly at random (why steal Top Ramen, in a city with no power or water?), with total disregard for the civil authorities. Safe at home, many of us reacted with the same embarrassment we’d had to film of the desperate father or the bedraggled, elderly woman, embarrassment and disgust at the poor animals the flood waters had brought to the surface.Intuitively, Americans know that there is something amiss to a system where the richest three Americans control more wealth than the bottom 600 million people in the world. Three people richer than 600 million, the population of continents – it’s wrong, and we know it, but other than in times of disaster, we choose not to admit to the divide between rich and poor, between have and have not.
We know the poor of New Orleans won’t be all right at the end of the day. No insurance adjuster is going to make things better with a check, and there isn’t a bank account to help rebuild. They were poor, they are even poorer now, though that hardly seems possible, and they seem destined to remain poor, to the end of days.Earlier this week, the president assumed responsibility for the confusion that enveloped the government’s response to Katrina. Surely the government has a lot to answer for, since it was inevitable that New Orleans would be flooded if not by a hurricane then by the Mississippi River when it rose to reclaim the delta on which the city had been built. The government’s inability to prepare for this disaster also raises doubts about our preparedness for the next act of terrorism.And Katrina should bring the poor and poverty to center stage in America, at the same time as Americans extend a generous and charitable hand to disaster’s victims. There’s little chance, however, that the president’s assumption of responsibility includes tackling a system that increases the number of poor every day across America.
Stealing Top Ramen at gunpoint is the act of a desperate man who has no hope. And that is the one thing that no single American can give the poor of New Orleans. We can send all the clothes and blankets and toys we want, but individually, we can’t send hope for the future. But surely we can do more than be embarrassed, and change the channel.Shouldn’t we extend our collective compassion to those in need before they need it, and not just when disaster strikes?Marc Carlisle writes a Thursday column. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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