Hurricane Katrina, recently voted by the Associated Press as "the story of the year," offered us an opportunity. It appears that as a nation we took a brief look and then said, "No thanks" before turning back to business as usual.
In the immediate aftermath of the storm, the entire nation seemed mesmerized by the brief, microscopic look we had at the horrible reality of long-term, entrenched poverty in a major American city.
News reports and commentary, social scientists, politicians, urban planners, religious leaders and ordinary people--everyone shared the same sense of horror, dismay at the plight of the poor in New Orleans.
For a brief moment it appeared that the ugly reality unveiled by the fierce storm would turn the nation's longer term attention to attacking poverty, not only in New Orleans, but in every major urban area in the nation.
But that hope soon proved unfounded.
Within days the conversation shifted to our general lack of preparedness in the face of national disasters. Heads rolled at FEMA. The President, the Governor of Louisiana and the Mayor of New Orleans all took tough shots concerning their ineffectiveness.
Serious, national, concerted attention to the poor, beyond the details of this particular disaster, evaporated quickly.
Several weeks ago, the Foundation for Community Empowerment (FCE) here in Dallas did an analysis of life in the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans as compared to the larger urban region along three social measures--education, wealth and employment. Predictably, the gap between this very poor part of New Orleans and the general population was wide.
But, FCE didn't stop there.
They ran a comparison of one of the poorest neighborhoods in Dallas, the Frazier community in South Dallas, with the larger community. The gaps turned out to be about twice as wide here in Dallas. Their analysis also revealed that the disparities here cannot be explained by the fact that Dallas is a richer community than New Orleans.
Shortly after the storm ravaged New Orleans, I heard one commentator say that Katrina had "peeled back the cover" on the harsh reality of systemic, generational poverty in the United States.
He was correct.
Now four months later, the nation has gone back to taking care of its business.
Congress has cut long-term programs designed to lift poor children into better lives. Ongoing tax cuts that benefit the rich only signal that more cuts should be expected for those programs that benefit our weakest neighbors through efforts such as education, skill training, child care, and housing.
So much for a long-term view.
So much for the disease festering just beneath the surface in every American city.
Our greatest national security issue just may be our callous indifference to people who live and struggle every day in poverty's unrelenting grip.
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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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