Still Blind to the Poverty; How Could George W. Bush Have Blown the Aftermath of Katrina? It's Not as If He Lacks Confidence in the Power of His Office
Byline: Jonathan Alter
A year ago, in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina, NEWSWEEK published a cover story called "Poverty, Race and Katrina: Lessons of a National Shame." The article suggested that the disaster was prompting a fresh look at "The Other America"--the 37 million Americans living below the poverty line. "It takes a hurricane," I wrote. "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." I ended on a hopeful note: "What kind of president does George W. Bush want to be? ... If he seizes the moment, he could undertake a midcourse correction that might materially change the lives of millions. Katrina gives Bush an only-Nixon-could-go-to-China opportunity, if he wants it."
Some readers told me at the time that this was naive--that the president, if not indifferent to the problems of black people, as the singer Kanye West charged, was not going to do anything significant to help them. At first this seemed too cynical. The week after the article appeared, Bush went to Jackson Square in New Orleans and made televised promises not only for Katrina relief but to address some of the underlying struggles of the poor. He proposed "worker recovery accounts" to help evacuees find work by paying for job training, school and child care; an Urban Homesteading Act that would make empty lots and loans available to the poor to start over, and a Gulf Enterprise Zone to spur business investment in poor areas. Small ideas, perhaps, but good ones.
Well, it turned out that the critics were largely right. Not only has the president done much less than he promised on the financing and logistics of Gulf Coast recovery, he has dropped the ball entirely on using the storm and its aftermath as an opportunity to fight poverty. Worker recovery accounts and urban homesteading never got off the ground, and the new enterprise zone is mostly an opportunity for Southern companies owned by GOP campaign contributors to make some money in New Orleans. The mood in Washington continues to be one of not-so-benign neglect of the problems of the poor.
"This is the greatest lost opportunity I've ever seen in public life," Sen. …