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Hurricane Aftermath Sparks Debate Over Poverty

As citizens along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico coast continue to struggle with the impact of Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, a wider national debate has begun over the plight of the poor affected by the storms.

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, the nation was faced with gripping television pictures from New Orleans of thousands of people, mostly poor and African-American, struggling to evacuate, and to stay alive in their flooded city.

Those images have sparked the beginning of a renewed national debate on the plight of the poor in America's cities, and what should be done about it.

Barbara Bergmann, an expert on economics and poverty at the American University in Washington, DC, says "Well, what you saw were a lot of unfortunate people who had no way to get out of the city, and who were largely abandoned, because people had not thought about how they might get out of the city."

Federal, state and local governments were widely criticized for not doing enough to help poor blacks get out of New Orleans, after authorities ordered a mandatory evacuation. Many people had no means of transportation.

Some African-American leaders were especially concerned.

Congressman Elijah Cummings, a Democrat from Maryland and a former chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, says "We cannot allow it to be said by history that the difference between those who lived and those who died in this great storm and flood of 2005 was nothing more than poverty, age or skin color."

Anti-poverty activists say the images in the wake of Katrina have helped to spotlight the plight of the poor, which they say has been overlooked by politicians and the news media in recent years.

A recent report from the government Census Bureau said poverty continued to rise last year, and that nearly 13 percent of Americans now fall below the poverty line. Two years ago, the government defined the poverty line as roughly a $9,000 annual income for an individual and about $19,000 for a family of four.

"This is the other America that we do not see that often," noted Toni-Michelle Travis, an expert on poverty and race at George Mason University in Virginia. "This is the urban poor, and they are struggling. They are really trying to make a living, have a family and a home, and it is very difficult for them. I think something like 36 million [people] are still below the poverty level."

President Bush took note of the issue during a recent speech to the nation from New Orleans.

"As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well," said Mr. Bush. "That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So, let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality."

American University Professor Barbara Bergmann says it is important for the president and Congress to get engaged in the poverty debate.

"One certainly should be encouraged by the fact that President Bush, in his address to the nation from New Orleans, did talk about poverty and the heritage of racism. Again, the question is how long this attention is going to last and how long this sympathy is going to last," she said.

Opposition Democrats are challenging the president and his Republican supporters in the Congress to back up his interest with firm commitments of funding.

Illinois Democrat Barack Obama, the only African-American in the U.S. Senate, spoke on the CBS program, Face the Nation.

"The question now is whether, in fact, there has been an awakening on his part and his administration to that intersection of race and poverty, and whether we are finally going to see the compassion in the 'compassionate conservatism' that he announced when he was first running for president," he said.

Republicans agree the Katrina disaster exposed long-standing problems of the poor in America's cities. But they prefer a bigger role for the private sector in long-term recovery efforts. They also warn Democrats not to exploit the issue for political gain.

"The American people are really kind of tired of this finger-pointing issue and politics all the time," said Illinois Congressman Dennis Hastert, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives. "I think it would behoove all of us to work together to try to find the answers."

Some experts question how long the poverty debate will last, given the American public's notoriously short attention span.

But George Mason University analyst Toni-Michelle Travis predicts it could last longer than some predict.

"Well, I think we are going to get a ripple effect," she said. "As these people go into other communities, and try to restructure their lives, try to get going again, other communities are going to say, 'this is a burden on our services,' particularly the Texas cities where large numbers are. And, I think, then, we are going to have to discuss again what services can we make available to people at the low end of the economic scale, as well as everyone displaced by the hurricane."

The poverty debate is likely to play out next in Congress, which has the responsibility to fund the federal relief efforts in the wake of the hurricanes.