The storm that crushed the poor in New Orleans began gathering power long before the Labor Day weekend of 2005.
What many people still don't quite understand, and what some refuse to acknowledge, are the forces that were at work in New Orleans that helped create a large and expanding underclass in the city prior to the long-dreaded "perfect storm."
Tourists seldom saw this side of the Crescent City. The "city that care forgot" had become the city that forgot to care, at least for its weakest, most vulnerable residents. It is as if the Katrina "blew the cover" on one of our most pressing national problems in a city where everyone loved to go for a good time.
Corruption at about every level in political processes affecting the city, twenty-five years of radically conservative federal public policy, class segregation, unchecked economic forces that drove the widening gap between rich and poor and a fatal resignation on the part of the poor themselves combined to doom the city to a full-scale disaster upon the arrival of Katrina.
I expect the city will come back, at least to some extent, even if not completely. Those with material resources, personal and social options and the connections guaranteed by education, status and privilege will rebound as well.
The poor are another matter altogether.
Cities across the nation have moved through similar dynamics since the late 1970s. The poor have been the biggest losers in terms of outcomes.
Cutbacks in spending for programs that lift and benefit the poor have had major impact on urban areas. The number and percentage of poor people in America have continued to increase steadily year by year--with the exception of a brief rebound during the mid to late 1990s.
Since this time last year, over 1 million additional Americans dropped below the poverty line, most live in urban areas, with the end of this tragic and needless slide nowhere in sight.
Take your pick.
Housing? Funds directed to assist the poorest of our neighbors continue to be cut back. In Dallas there is an over supply of housing whose owners are willing to accept vouchers as payment for rent. The continuing problem is that there are no vouchers available to our poorest residents.
Education? The rhetoric sounds nice, but many federal mandates remain unfunded. The middle-class continues to exit the city. The poor are left to fend for themselves. Teachers teach to standardized tests. Urban students drop out, fall further behind and simply give up. Our state legislature cannot come up with a workable school finance bill. Pell grant awards are smaller these days for college students who need financial assistance. Tuition is up across the nation in public universities. If education is a key to moving out of poverty, the poor are having a harder time than ever before obtaining the instruction and training they need.
Health care? Analyze the federal cutbacks and you will see who suffers the most. Surprise: the poor--along with that shrinking number of physicians willing to care for them.
Mental health services? Funding cuts have been steady and continuing with no end in sight. Persons suffering with bi-polar disorders, dual diagnosis challengens or schizophrenia and who are poor, basically find themselves on their own.
Basic human services, including case management, employment training, food supplements, child care? Cut, cut, cut.
It would be downright funny, if it weren't so tragic, to contrast the on-going complaints about "welfare" spending with the reality that such spending is almost gone compared to 1995 levels.
Almost 1 in 3 residents of New Orleans lived below the poverty level when the storm stuck the city. Fully half of the citizens were either poor by the federal definition or just above the line.
No doubt, some of these folks had made mistakes and decisions that contributed to their impoverishment. But bad decisions cannot possibly explain the depth of the city's poverty.
Now tens of thousands of former New Orleans residents are scattered across the nation. Over a quarter million now live in Texas. This exported poverty will challenge other American cities like Dallas that already have many of the same problems at work on and among the poor.
The time has come for change.
Public and private sectors must come together to restore hope. New doors of opportunity must be opened to the urban poor. Our failure to respond to the increasing burden of the poor will only continue and intensify the storm that we've witnessed in the past several days.
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Larry James' Urban Daily
A repository of ideas, resources, commentary and opinions concerning the issues facing low-income residents of the inner cities of the United States and how mainstream America largely forgets or, worse, ignores the day-to-day realities of urban life for the so-called "poor." Written and edited by the President & CEO of CitySquare. Please visit CitySquare.
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