Magazine article Newsweek

THE OTHER AMERICA; AN ENDURING SHAME: Katrina Reminded Us, but the Problem Is Not New. Why a Rising Tide of People Live in Poverty, Who They Are-And What We Can Do about It

Magazine article Newsweek

THE OTHER AMERICA; AN ENDURING SHAME: Katrina Reminded Us, but the Problem Is Not New. Why a Rising Tide of People Live in Poverty, Who They Are-And What We Can Do about It

Article excerpt

Byline: Jonathan Alter (With Joseph Contreras and Sarah Childress in New Orleans, Jessica Silver-Greenberg and Anne Underwood in New York and Pat Wingert in Washington Graphic by Josh Ulick)

It takes a hurricane. It takes a catastrophe like Katrina to strip away the old evasions, hypocrisies and not-so-benign neglect. It takes the sight of the United States with a big black eye--visible around the world--to help the rest of us begin to see again. For the moment, at least, Americans are ready to fix their restless gaze on enduring problems of poverty, race and class that have escaped their attention. Does this mean a new war on poverty? No, especially with Katrina's gargantuan price tag. But this disaster may offer a chance to start a skirmish, or at least make Washington think harder about why part of the richest country on earth looks like the Third World.

"I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren't just abandoned during the hurricane," Sen. Barack Obama said last week on the floor of the Senate. "They were abandoned long ago--to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness."

The question now is whether the floodwaters can create a sea change in public perceptions. "Americans tend to think of poor people as being responsible for their own economic woes," says sociologist Andrew Cherlin of Johns Hopkins University. "But this was a case where the poor were clearly not at fault. It was a reminder that we have a moral obligation to provide every American with a decent life."

In the last four decades, part of that obligation has been met. Social Security and Medicare have all but eliminated poverty among the elderly. Food stamps have made severe hunger in the United States mostly a thing of the past. A little-known program with bipartisan support and a boring name--the Earned Income Tax Credit--supplements the puny wages of the working poor, helping to lift millions into the lower middle class.

But after a decade of improvement in the 1990s, poverty in America is actually getting worse. A rising tide of economic growth is no longer lifting all boats. For the first time in half a century, the third year of a recovery (2004) also saw an increase in poverty. In a nation of nearly 300 million people, the number living below the poverty line ($14,680 for a family of three) recently hit 37 million, up more than a million in a year.

With the strain Katrina is placing on the gulf region (and on families putting up their displaced relatives), it will almost certainly increase more.

The poverty rate, 12.7 percent, is a controversial measurement, in part because it doesn't include some supplemental programs. But it's the highest in the developed world and more than twice as high as in most other industrialized countries, which all strike a more generous social contract with their weakest citizens. Even if the real number is lower than 37 million, that's a nation of poor people the size of Canada or Morocco living inside the United States.

Their fellow Americans know little about them. In the last decade, poverty disappeared from public view. TV dislikes poor people, not personally but because their appearance is a downer and--according to ratings meters--causes viewers to hit the remote. Powerful politicians aren't much friendlier: poor folks vote in small numbers. Republicans win little of their support and Democrats often take it for granted.

Until Katrina, the pressure was off. After President Clinton signed welfare reform in 1996, the chattering classes stopped arguing about it. With welfare caseloads cut in half--more than 9 million women and children have left the rolls--even many liberals figured the trend lines were headed in the right direction. The real-world challenges of welfare reform explained in Jason DeParle's landmark 2004 book, "American Dream," went unheeded, as Clinton initiatives and the boom of the 1990s pulled 4. …

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