A Call for Partnership Now

By Ryan, Elaine M. | Policy & Practice, December 2005 | Go to article overview

A Call for Partnership Now


Ryan, Elaine M., Policy & Practice


When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita struck the Gulf Coast in August and September, they left in their path a trail of devastation unparalleled in our history. The storms not only uprooted physical structures in communities, they also brought to light the fragility of our nation's social and economic infrastructure.

Within days we learned the breadth and depth of the social destruction. More than 1.8 million families applied for Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance--900,000 families enrolled in the emergency Food Stamp Program and more than one-half of all the unemployment claims nationwide were filed by displaced workers, many of whom not only lost a job but a place of employment as well.

While the hurricanes swept through only four states, the victims were scattered throughout more than 40. If the first responders to the scene were police, fire, and military personnel, the second responders were the front-line human service workers who counseled, comforted, and enrolled families in critical services. While states and localities and religious and charitable organizations leapt into action, federal institutions were slow to respond. Within days it became clear that this type of human suffering could inspire telethons and fundraising efforts, but there was the absence of a national response to a disaster of this magnitude.

Katrina revealed the deepest poverty so acute that it trapped families in their place both literally and figuratively. It brought to light the fragile circumstances of the working poor who could ill-afford to have their jobs disappear along with their homes. And the hurricane exposed the patchwork of social policies that permitted some evacuees--victims of the same natural disaster--to access some type of assistance while others failed to qualify.

Medicaid and cash assistance policies vary significantly from state to state. Within days we recognized the inadequacies of those programs to meet the needs of the victims. Almost immediately, state Medicaid programs stepped in to extend health care to the helpless, but federal rules prevented them from serving everyone in need. Single adults need not apply. Our nation doesn't have even a short-term health care coverage for them--not even at a time of national disaster. State governors were united in their call for Congress to provide 100 percent federal funding to cover the health costs of the victims so that they could provide them health coverage under existing state programs. But the call went unanswered. And, more than two months after Katrina hit, Congress has yet to approve a short-term Medicaid eligibility for victims to meet the health needs of children, elderly, disabled individuals and adults.

Congress did act to provide additional Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) funding for the stricken states, and it granted access to TANF contingency funds for the other states that had welcomed evacuees into their states. …

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