October 2, 2005

Broadways and Means

Gelf recommends some background reading to get up to speed on the forces behind the poverty cycle.

Aaron Zamost

While many turn to Dan Brown for insight into political events (including folks at Fox News), Gelf turns to real literature first. Every week or so, Aaron Zamost will present readers with two books relevant to current events: one for people who enjoy reading Tom Robbins—and another for those who like Tony Robbins.

Oh, we still read schlock—but we read it second.


After Hurricane Katrina exposed serious flaws in government's ability to provide for poorer Americans, political analysts speculated that the storm would be the catalyst for a significant shift in the American mindset. Commentators like Clarence Page summarized their relatively dour feelings with some hope. "Sixty-two percent of New Orleans is black, about a third of them are below the poverty line," he said. "We don't like to think about them a lot here in America. But we've got to think about them. And maybe people will think about them now."

You'll have to excuse me if I'm less optimistic, especially when the only discussion about poverty and race that has made headlines in recent days are the comments of former Education secretary Bill Bennett: that "you could abort every black baby in this country and your crime rate would go down." (Yes, he actually said that. Listen to it here.)

Recent events in Washington seem to indicate similar insensitivity. Here are some examples of Congressional calculus:

Problem 1: Costs of repair
The number of Americans living in poverty increased in 2004. The areas hardest hit by Katrina were poverty-stricken. President Bush said, "There is deep, persistent poverty in this region ... We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action."
Proposed solution:
To cover these costs, the House Republican Study Committee proposed $509 billion in cuts, nearly half of which would come from health care for the poor (Washington Post).

Problem 2: Creating jobs and starting reconstruction
After the hurricane, initial claims for unemployment insurance increased by 71,000, the biggest jump in ten years (CNN). This has led to an enormous need in affected areas for local contractors and government-sponsored jobs programs.
Proposed solution:
President Bush suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, so federal contractors can pay local construction workers less than the prevailing wage, and authorized Halliburton to tap its $500 million government contract for Gulf Coast reconstruction (Forbes).

Problem 3: Housing
Evacuees fled to communities outside New Orleans to look for housing. Several communities with vacant, privately owned apartments, offered assistance, although new residents still need government help to subsidize monthly rent payments.
Proposed solution:
The White House ditched a plan to provide emergency vouchers of up to $10,000 to help poor storm victims find new housing quickly and cover rent. Instead, the administration directed FEMA to pay an average of $16,000 for each trailer built in federal trailer parks, resulting in a program that (a) costs more money per unit of housing, (b) takes longer to implement, and (c) concentrates poor storm victims in trailer parks instead of reintegrating them into society. Even Newt Gingrich called this plan "extraordinarily bad public policy" (LA Times).

Lest we forget that the Bush administration and some Republican senators are also currently blocking a bipartisan health care package for hundreds of thousands of evacuees (CBS News).

I don't believe there is conservative malice behind a federal policy that sticks it to the underprivileged, but I do believe that the poor response of our Republican-controlled government is based on ignorance. First Lady Laura Bush said last week, "Because of the devastation on the coast, there will be a neighborhood and a housing discussion that'll be possible that really was not possible before." Unfortunately, that is only half-true. Poverty may not have been the sexiest political issue (John Edwards' "Two Americas" shtick never fired up voters as much as general Bush-bashing did), but that doesn't mean that a discussion wasn't possible. It simply wasn't possible in Republican circles that ignored the fact that an eight-year decline in the general poverty rate (as well as the poverty rate among children and African-Americans) suddenly reversed course in the year 2001 and has been rising ever since (Media Matters).

The images out of New Orleans were shocking, but they weren't new. There are serious, smart ways to talk about the persistence of discrimination in America decades after desegregation, the March on Washington, reductions in wage inequalities, and affirmative action. Endemic inequality has been a problem for years, one that has not received the level of attention among politicians (Republican or Democrat) that it warrants.

Some books that cover the ever-widening social divide:

Savage Inequalities, by Jonathan Kozol

This book is not fun to read. And I don't mean that it's difficult (it isn't) or long (it's not) or overly academic and therefore sluggish and dull. It's just that Savage Inequalities is probably the most awful book I've ever read, and I mean that as a compliment. Kozol's book is a surprisingly honest depiction of the current conditions of inner-city public schools in the United States. It is enlightening, rigorously researched, and far and away the feel-bad book of the past twenty years.

For someone as frustrated with the system as Kozol, it must take great restraint to keep the book from projecting outrage and condescension. Statements like "[unconstitutional] segregated education did not seem to have changed very much for children in the schools I saw," aren't delivered with the flame-throwing chutzpah you might expect of Kozol, a liberal critic of Reagan era social policy. But this is why Savage Inequalities succeeds; Kozol trusts his readers to draw the same conclusions he has from his surprisingly objective descriptions of education in disrepair. When he says, "In no school that I saw anywhere in the United States were nonwhite children in large numbers truly intermingled with white children," you believe him.

His observations are also confirmed by the comments of several students quoted throughout the book, children who seem to wrestle with the kinds of questions Kozol asked school administrators: "why we would agree to let our children go to school in places where no politician, school board president, or business CEO would dream of working." This is the most effective, and at the same time, most upsetting theme of the book. It's one thing to offer hundreds of statistics proving how funding formulas discriminate against poorer districts, but it's quite another to show that children can see the situation in which they've been placed, that they actually understand what's going on around them, and that they feel it is their duty to bear the burden of the ignored but fixable inequities in the system.

At a time when the education of displaced poor children now sits entirely in the hands of policy makers (who now have the opportunity to build a new system from scratch for many students), it's horrifying to think about how they might handle the situation, given the way they've dealt with it in the past. Kozol doesn't offer much hope, but at least he gave us this book.

Annie, by Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse

A national disaster. Poverty exacerbated by an out-of-touch president. The benefits of government programs. Children separated from their parents. Pet rescues. All you have to do is change a few names and dates and voila! It's Katrina: The Musical.

(For a version of the song that sort of matches up, click here.)

It's the hard-knock life for us!
It's the hard-knock life for us!
Instead of health care,
Medicaid gets axed!
Instead of welfare,
The rich aren't taxed!
It's the hard-knock life!

The Ninth Ward was pretty dark,
But now we're in a trailer park!
Slashing funding?
The levees cracked!
FEMA buddies?
No-bid contracts!
It's the hard-knock life!

Who cares if the Hurricane has licked 'em?
We can waive all the statutory rules!
Go ahead, line up the Katrina victims,
And put them all in segregated schools!

No one's there when the hurricane makes landfall!
No one's there when you have nothing to drink!
No one cares if the FEMA head's a lobbyist!

And the billions go to Halliburton, Inc.!

The Superdome we never see.

Superdome, what's that? Who's he?

Government is real supine
When you're below the poverty line!
It's the hard-knock life!

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