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What must we learn about race and poverty from Katrina?
By Linda Moore, Chair
Department of Social Work
More than 40 years ago, sociologist Michael Harrington wrote The Other America in which he argued that America created a separate society of invisible poor by isolating rural and urban poverty. That book brought political attention; Robert Kennedy did his famous Poverty Tour, and the War on Poverty was born. We lost that war and our focus on poverty.
Katrina brought the invisible poor back to light and the whole world saw. The reality is that 37 million people in America live in or on the edge of poverty. Over 45 million have no health insurance. Almost 42 percent of single mothers are poor. Children, who make up 22 percent of the population, make up 40 percent of the poor; we are the only industrialized country in history where children are the largest population group among the poor.
Are these lazy, welfare dependent people we see in the media? In fact, many are people who lost jobs because industries such as coal mining, steel and automotive production have closed, or because companies have moved to suburbs or to foreign countries where labor costs are lower. Many are mothers, over half of whom do not get child support. Two-thirds are people we would not expect to work – children, aged, people with disabilities.
Many flood victims were working poor who had no car, no house insurance and often no health insurance. Those who had money, credit cards, transportation and places to go were able to leave New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Without those resources, where does one go? Those of us who take access and mobility for granted are often judgmental about those who stayed.
Many argue that Katrina is about race. Media pictures reinforced our prejudices. The face of New Orleans was black, yet we rarely saw the face of the devastated Gulf Coast that was more often white. There were pictures, almost identical, of people carrying bags through New Orleans. The one with whites said “Residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda at a grocery store” and the one with blacks said “Young men wade through water after looting a grocery store.” That speaks volumes about how we view each other and what our expectations are for people of color. Ethnic minorities of color have double the rate of poverty than whites even though most are not poor.
If we are truly to rebuild, we cannot ignore the face of poverty in America whatever its color. New Orleans showed us the invisible poor and the price we pay for ignoring them. Poverty is not worth the staggering human and economic costs. Societies with the largest gaps between the haves and the have-nots also have the highest rates of violence, social problems and family breakdown.
Prevention – education, health care, infrastructure spending, housing – is cheaper than poverty. Harrington said that the only truly human response to poverty should be outrage. America, with its great resources, has a chance to win that war on poverty if we have the will.
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