AMERICA'S HIDDEN SHAME; the World Watched Last Week as Hurricane Katrina Survivors in New Orleans Had to Beg Their Slowreacting Government for Food and Water

Daily Record (Glasgow, Scotland), September 10, 2005 | Go to article overview

AMERICA'S HIDDEN SHAME; the World Watched Last Week as Hurricane Katrina Survivors in New Orleans Had to Beg Their Slowreacting Government for Food and Water


Byline: EWAN WATT

The world watched last week as Hurricane Katrina survivors in New Orleans had to beg their slowreacting government for food and water. And no one could fail to notice that those worst hit by the disaster were mainly poor and mostly black. The shocking scenes exposed the US's hidden shame - that millions of people in the most powerful nation on Earth are living in poverty. Record journalist EWAN WATT,who lived and worked in America's Deep South, looks at the side of life few British tourists see when they cross the Atlantic

I NEVER asked his name,but he introduced me to poverty in America's Deep South.

This dignified, middle-aged black man wanted directions to the nearest church. Then, as if to explain himself, he lifted his T-shirt.

His stomach bulged painfully with a double hernia. In Britain, he'd have been whipped into hospital to have it fixed.

But he had no health insurance. Hewas too poor to afford it. In his hand was a begging note from his GP, asking churches and charities if they would donate money to help pay for his operation.

It was a shocking introduction to America's hidden shame, the side of life that few British tourists come across when they are lured by the bright lights of Orlando, New York and Las Vegas.

But the underclass, and particularly the poverty-stricken black underclass of the Southern states, have been thrust into the world spotlight by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

The despair on the faces and hunger in the eyes of people pleading for food and water in New Orleans was a surprise to millions across the globe, used to such scenes only in Third World countries.

But it also shook many people in the US itself. The middle-class, SUV-driving folk of the vast swathes of America where houses have pools and life is always good, have had to face the harsh reality that huge numbers of their fellow citizens live in poverty.

Many Americans are genuinely taken aback that in their own country - the richest nation on Earth, the vibrant, kick-ass Home of the Free - people in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama stayed in their homes because they were too poor to flee the hurricane.

They didn't have a car to drive to safety. They didn't have a credit card to check into a hotel.They had no place to go.

The glamour and jazz-club glitz that lures tourists to New Orleans hides the grim fact that it is one of America's poorest cities. Two-thirds of its residents are black, nearly one in three live below the poverty line and half of the households survive on less than pounds 13,500 a year.

It's a pattern repeated across the Deep South states of Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia,Tennessee and South Carolina, where the racial and economic divide is still apparent, 140 years after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished.

In these sun-drenched, humid states - away from the visitor attractions, beaches and historical landmarks - lies another America. It's a land of dilapidated neighbourhoods with wooden, barely-furnished houses, abandoned buildings and grinding poverty. Its inhabitants are largely low-income and black.

Throughout the US, the African- American middle class is growing and becoming more influential in many walks of life.

But one in four black Americans still live in poverty - defined by the government as having an income of pounds 10,500 for a family of four. One in three black children live in poverty, compared to just 10 per cent of white kids.

A fifth have no health insurance. Nearly one million black people are in prison and the unemployment rate for young men is double - and in some areas triple - that of whites.

Fast food giants McDonald's are the biggest employer of young African-Americans.

And when it comes to education, public schools in Southern states have always lagged behind the rest of the country on the all-important test scores and graduation rates. …

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