Class and Crisis: Socioeconomic Status and the Ethics of Individual Experience: Understanding Community Need in a Crisis Situation Can Mitigate Concerns and Reduce the Incidence of Unethical and Illegal Behavior

Article excerpt


Forum: Emergency Management 2009

We've all heard the arguments post-Katrina and perhaps we've made the remarks ourselves: "Why can't these people just pull themselves up by their bootstraps? They just sit and wait for government hand-outs. Okay, so it was bad, but why can't they see the opportunities this situation offers? Overcoming difficulty and pioneering ahead is the American way, after all."

It's natural that the situation would be viewed this way because the perspective most often expressed publicly represents the upper-middle and upper-class sectors of the United States; the impoverished either do not hold positions that provide them the opportunity to express their views except as anecdotes to a larger story, and they don't hold the jobs that control media expression.

The purpose of illuminating this orientation is not to criticize society, class, or the media, but it bears noting that the reality of experience for lower socioeconomic classes (SES) in the face of disaster is very different from mainstream America. These individuals are those most likely to be affected by natural disasters, so becoming aware of and recognizing the different lens through which a crisis is viewed allows for the development of more effective outreach programs and mitigation efforts. SES is also a predictive tool in the type of ethical violations following a disaster and, as such, can serve as a guide for crime prevention and investigation.

Understanding the Situation

Evidence of ethical variance across SES is particularly notable in the after-math of Hurricane Katrina because of the enormity of the devastation and the disparate economic circumstances of those affected by it. At the lowest levels, those in need of food, shelter, and security will likely seek to satisfy those basic requirements through any means necessary, whether illegal or unethical, or both. Situational behaviors as urgent as these are usually understood and overlooked as extreme actions during dire circumstances and not necessarily representative of an individual's ethical framework as a whole.

Numerous instances of essential looting, as it will be termed here, were widely reported when the citizens of New Orleans who were devastated by the storm and subsequent flooding sought food, clothing, shelter, and medical supplies. Yet such looting by individuals who viewed the chaos as opportunities to enrich themselves rather than to satisfy basic needs falls into another category of illegal and unethical behavior toward which the general public and law enforcement is less understanding.

Both of these responses, essential looting and opportunistic looting, were enacted primarily by those in the lower and lower-middle economic classes. While the majority of people with means to do so left the area prior to the storm's impact, those of the higher SESs that did stay were not reported to have engaged in looting behaviors. Their ethical violations took different forms and were more long-term in nature.

Louisiana Demographics

Ethical violations that occurred in the wake of Katrina illustrate the relevance of demographics to this matter. Income disparities are evident across the United States, but what makes the impact of SES particularly salient to Louisiana during times of crisis is the preponderance of individuals in the lower SES--a relatively small middle class, and a small but very wealthy upper class (Jurkiewicz, 2007). Nearly 20 percent of the population is at or below poverty level, and an additional 36.1 percent teeter on the margin. Nearly 60 percent of the population is of lower SES.

The average income for the state is $36,729. Concomitant with poverty is a 41.9 percent illiteracy rate, and 31 percent of the population lack healthcare (U.S. Census Bureau, 2004; 2005; 2006). African-Americans make up 67 percent of the population in New Orleans, and most citizens live in households primarily headed by a single parent (only 13. …