The Common Good
November 2005

What the Waters Revealed

by Jim Wallis | November 2005

Hurricane Katrina opened the eyes of many to the reality of poverty in America. Will we take responsibility for the poor in our land of plenty?

What the Waters Revealed

Hurricane Katrina destroyed entire cities, the lives of more than a thousand people, the homes of hundreds of thousands, and the confidence of millions in the government's commitment and ability to protect them. Then Hurricane Rita reflooded New Orleans and caused millions to flee their homes in Texas, including many who had already fled there from their homes in New Orleans. Much of New Orleans was emptied of its people, and broad areas of the Gulf Coast in Mississippi, Alabama, and Texas were devastated. More than 1 million Americans are now displaced across the country, and their fellow Americans around the nation are trying to take them in, perhaps for a long time.

But the waters of Hurricane Katrina also washed away our national denial of the shockingly high number of Americans living in poverty and our reluctance to admit the still-persistent connection of race and poverty in America, and perhaps even eroded the political power of a conservative anti-social services ideology that, for decades now, has weakened the idea of the common good.

The pictures from New Orleans stunned the nation. They exposed the stark reality of who was suffering the most, who was left behind, who was waiting in vain for help to arrive, and who is now facing the most difficult challenges of recovery. The faces of those stranded in New Orleans were overwhelmingly poor and black, the very old and the very young. They were the ones who could not evacuate; had no cars or money for gas; no money for bus, train, or airfare; no budget for hotels or no friends or family with room to share or spare. They were already vulnerable before this calamity; now they were totally exposed and on their own. For days, nobody came for them. And the conditions of the places they were finally herded to (“like animals,” many testified) sickened the nation. Those left behind in New Orleans had already been left out in America.

From the reporters covering the unprecedented disaster to ordinary Americans glued to their televisions, a shocked and even outraged response was repeated: “I didn’t realize how many Americans were poor.”

“We have now seen what is under the rock in America,” said a carpenter in Washington, D.C. The vulnerability of the poorest children in New Orleans has been especially riveting to many Americans, especially to other parents. Many say they had trouble holding back their tears when they saw mothers with their babies stranded on rooftops crying for help or jammed into dangerous and dirty places waiting for help to arrive.

As a direct result of Katrina and its aftermath, and for the first time in many years, the media were reporting on poverty, telling Americans that New Orleans had an overall poverty rate of 28 percent (84 percent of them African American), and a child poverty rate of almost 50 percent—half of all the city’s children (rates only a little higher than other major cities and actually a little lower than some others). Ironically (and some might say providentially), the annual U.S. Census poverty report came out during Katrina’s deadly assault, showing that poverty had risen for the fourth straight year and that 37 million Americans were stuck below the poverty line. Such people were the ones most stuck in New Orleans.

Katrina revealed what was already there in America: an invisible and often silent poverty that most of us in the richest nation on earth have chosen not to talk about, let alone take responsibility for. After the storm hit, we all saw it—and so did the rest of the world. It made Americans feel both compassion and shame. Many political leaders and commentators, across the ideological spectrum, acknowledged the national tragedy, not just of the horrendous storm but of the realities the flood waters exposed. And some have suggested that if the aftermath of Katrina finally leads the nation to demand solutions to the poverty of upwards of a third of its citizens, then something good might come from this terrible disaster.

THAT IS WHAT WE must all work toward now. Rescuing those still in danger, assisting those in dire need, relocating and caring for the homeless, and beginning the process of recovery and rebuilding are all top priorities. But dealing with the stark and shameful social and racial realities Katrina has revealed must become our clear, long-term goal. That will require a combination of public and private initiatives, the merger of personal and social responsibility, the rebuilding of both families and communities—but also the confronting of hard questions about national priorities. Most of all it will require us to make different choices.

The critical needs of poor and low-income families must become the first priority of federal and state legislatures, not the last. And, the blatant inequalities of race in America—especially in critical areas of education, jobs, health care, and housing—must now be addressed. Congressional pork-barrel spending that aligns with political power more than human needs must be challenged as never before. That will require a complete reversal of the political logic now operating in Washington and state capitals around the country: A new moral logic must reshape our political habits.

In the face of this natural disaster—and during a time of war, with already rising deficits—new budget cuts to vital programs such as food stamps and Medicaid, and more tax cuts for the wealthy, in the form of estate tax repeal and capital gains and stock dividend reductions, would be both irresponsible and shameless.

The nation is starting to realize that the weakness of the nation’s infrastructure is not a problem limited to the levees of New Orleans, and that restoring the Gulf Coast will require an environmental reconstruction as well. We can no longer neglect the loss of critical wetlands that once offered some protection from flooding, or deny the fact that increased water temperature in the Gulf of Mexico stokes the strength of tropical storms—such negligence is irresponsible and will only produce more disasters.

Katrina has also focused new attention on Iraq. The growing human and economic costs of a war in Iraq that more and more Americans believe to be a terrible mistake has also become an increasingly controversial issue as the current disaster has unfolded. Resources diverted from urgently needed levee repair in order to pay for war, the diminished availability of National Guard troops and first responders on tour in Iraq, and the embarrassing comparisons between poor planning and implementation for war and the ill-preparedness and incompetence of the national response to Katrina have all raised new and deeper questions about the nation’s foreign policy and political leadership. A bad war, bad financial choices of how we spend our resources, and a bad strategy to combat terrorism are now inextricably linked in the minds of many to a bad natural disaster strategy, or lack thereof. The war in Iraq hasn’t made us more secure; Katrina’s aftermath has made that even more clear.

THERE IS HISTORICAL precedent for natural disasters provoking a re-evaluation of our social thinking and political direction. In 1889, a great flood in Johnstown, Pennsylvania, trapped and killed hundreds of people, most of them poor. Some of the blame fell on the Pittsburgh millionaires whose private fishing pond overflowed onto the destitute. The tragic event helped to catalyze the already growing popular anger against the new industrialists who seemed so callous to the suffering of people around them. The flood, many historians feel, helped to prepare the way for the turn of the century progressive movement, which focused on breaking up the powerful corporate trusts that had come to dominate the country.

In 1927, another flood visited destruction on the city of New Orleans. In his provocative book Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, historian John M. Barry describes how the disaster revealed both racial and economic inequalities. The response to the disaster by local authorities directly exposed the brutal inequities of race and class and provoked a deep populist anger. People demanded new responses from the federal government, and the 1927 flood helped pave the way for the New Deal. Citing both Johnstown and 1927 New Orleans as examples, columnist David Brooks wrote insightfully in The New York Times immediately following Katrina, “Hurricanes come in two waves. First comes the rainstorm, and then comes what the historian John Barry calls the ‘human storm’—the recriminations, the political conflict, and the battle over compensation. Floods wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption, and the unacknowledged inequalities. When you look back over the meteorological turbulence in this nation’s history, it’s striking how often political turbulence followed.” Such natural disasters, says Brooks, can become “civic examinations.”

Interviewing Barry on Meet the Press, Tim Russert asked, “Do you see the same thing happening now in terms of the re-emergence of class and race and poverty as political issues?” Barry replied, “I think it’s certainly possible and maybe likely. But it’s obviously too early to tell.” The storm “ripped off the cover” from America, said Barry, revealing what happens to people without resources. The question, said the historian, is whether Katrina would cause a “shift in public thinking” about our collective responsibilities to people in need.

That shift in thinking cannot just be the reassertion of old social and political agendas that seek to take advantage of the current moment of opportunity. The truth is that our failure of the poor is a collective one: Both conservative and liberal agendas have proven inadequate and left us with a very large underclass of poor people—adults, children, families—in America. Both sides have important insights that must be factored into any real solutions, but both have fallen far short of providing real answers. Many, even most, poor people work hard, full time, yet are still forced to raise their children in poverty. That should be unacceptable in America. To change that, we will need a new commitment, a new approach, and a new alliance to overcome poverty in America.

THERE ARE TWO obstacles to making real progress against poverty: the lack of priority and the lack of agreement on strategy. The poor have been near the bottom of our priority list, if they are on the list at all. It will take a moral and even religious imperative to change our priorities, but the time has come to do so. But we have also been paralyzed by the debate between liberals and conservatives on what solutions to pursue, with the Right favoring cultural changes and the Left endorsing policy changes.

We must be disciplined by results when it comes to poverty reduction. It’s time to move from the politics of blame to a politics of solutions. Liberals must start talking about the problems of out-of-wedlock births and about strengthening both marriage and parenting, and conservatives must start talking about strategic public investments in education, health care, affordable housing, and living family incomes. We must focus on making work really work for low-income families. Those who work hard and full time in America should not have to raise their children in poverty—but many still do. Together, we must end the debate that’s limited to the choices of large or small government and forge a common commitment to good and effective government.

This is indeed a teachable moment, but one that will require good teachers. What have we learned, how must we change, where will we transform our priorities, and when will we commit ourselves to forging a new strategy that actually might work to defeat the cycle of poverty?

Restoring the hope of America’s poorest families, renewing our national infrastructures, protecting our environmental stability, and rethinking our most basic priorities will require nothing less than a national change of heart and direction. It calls for a transformation of political ethics and governance, a move from serving private interests to ensuring the public good. If Katrina changes our political conscience and reinvigorates among us a commitment to the common good, then even this terrible tragedy might be redeemed.

Jim Wallis was editor-in-chief of Sojourners when this article appeared. You can respond by signing the Katrina Pledge, a commitment to overcome poverty in the United States.

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