Politicians and pundits alike seem to agree that Hurricane Katrina was a wake-up call for all Americans. As images of people who were too poor to get away from the storm flashed across TV screens, it became apparent that the wealthiest nation on earth still has a major problem with poverty.
The question now is what can be done about it? Some experts are calling for another federal "war" on poverty, but they say it is going to require some sacrifices.
As he stood recently in Jackson Square, in the heart of New Orleans' storm-ravaged historic district, President George W. Bush told the nation that the winds of Katrina had exposed a reality about life in America that few people in the world ever see. "As all of us saw on television," he said to the millions watching, "there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America."
Experts say most Americans have been completely sheltered from the reality of poverty in their own backyard. According to Bill Spriggs, a senior fellow at the non-partisan Economic Policy Institute, the United States is still a highly segregated society, in spite of the advancements brought about by the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s. "Few Americans have to deal with the reality of the lives of those who are black and those who are poor," he says. "They don't ever connect the dots. So if somebody is being paid $6.50 an hour to be a maid in New Orleans, and you go down there, and you go to Mardi Gras, and you have a good time, you never think through what does $6.50 an hour mean? That's below the [federally established] poverty line."
So now that Katrina has "connected the dots" for millions of upper and middle-class Americans, what does the nation do? President Bush has put forth a couple of ideas: providing job training opportunities for people who were forced to evacuate, and offering tax incentives to small businesses willing to move into the Gulf region and employ the people who live there.
That second idea, according to Alison Fraser of the Heritage Foundation, is a good example of how the federal government can tackle the problem of poverty. "It's not necessarily a function of government's helping directly, but it's a function of government's getting out of the way," she says. "You know, let's open up a small beauty shop. Well, state, local, and even federal governments have many, many burdens towards doing that. Yet, those entrepreneurial businesses are what's going to be the key to getting jobs for less skilled people."
But the poverty revealed by Katrina is chronic poverty, and it stretches far beyond the Mississippi Delta, according to Michael Zweig of the Center for the Study of Working Class Life at the State University of New York. Professor Zweig says the people trapped in the hurricane's path have been poor for generations, and he insists that encouraging private businesses to move into the area and employ people at minimum wage is not going to break this cycle.
"What we need is a strong and vibrant public sector. What we need is a strong and vibrant set of government institutions that can help and be mobilized and have real resources," Professor Zweig says. "I think what we've seen in New Orleans, and what we've seen throughout the Southeast and the Gulf coast is the limitation of reliance on the private sector."
The public intervention Michael Zweig is talking about is not completely foreign to America. In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson's so-called "War on Poverty" created a number of federally-financed health, housing, and education programs that did alleviate the problem to some degree. But many of those public programs were cut or eliminated in the 1980s after just one generation - not long enough, some experts say, to break the cycle of poverty.
Bill Spriggs of the Economic Policy Institute says bringing them back won't be cheap. "This should give Americans this moment to say, 'What are our national priorities?'" he says. "Is it to continue tax cuts for the wealthy and further create national debt that we're going to pass on to our children? Or is it to say, 'No, our priorities are with the here and now, and we're going to have to pay our taxes, and everyone, from top to bottom, is going to have to sacrifice.'"
Polls show Americans may not believe they have to make the kinds of sacrifices Bill Spriggs and Michael Zweig are calling for. A survey conducted recently by Time magazine found that 62% of Americans oppose raising taxes to pay for the recovery effort in the Gulf region.
So where do they think the money should come from? 61% said the government should cut back on its spending in Iraq. Another 45% said it should cut "other government programs."