Katrina and the Poverty of America


“The greatest of evils and the worst of crimes is poverty.”

George Bernard Shaw, Major Barbara

The plight of the poor, caught without the means to escape New Orleans as Katrina swamped the city, forced Americans to confront, in a horribly visible way, the reality of poverty. Cynthia McKinney (D. Georgia) highlighted this fact on the floor of the House, September 8, (reprinted in these pages on the 12th ), when she pointed to the 30,000 New Orleans households that live on less than $10,000 per year. But her point was larger than New Orleans; poverty is endemic in America, it thrives here like Kudzu in Mississippi. “According to the US Census Bureau, 35.9 million people live below the poverty line in America including 12.9 million children.” 4.1 million additional Americans slipped into poverty between 2001-2004. Like Kudzu, poverty apparently cannot be stopped from growing in America.

The reality of poverty for African-Americans is even worse. McKinney notes “It will take 581 years for us to close the per capita gap. Since 1968 we have only been able to close the gap 2 cents. Black people make 55 cents for every dollar. That was in 1968. In 2001, it was 57 cents. Two cents, so 581 years to close the gap.” The poverty rate for African-American children and for Hispanic children is 26.1% and 25.6% respectively. It would appear that poverty and color go together in America, a fact that did not escape Aaron Brown and his colleagues in the mainstream media as they watched the unfolding of Katrina in New Orleans. While Blacks are behind, the picture is not great for the rest of us. “Incomes for 95% of American households are flat or falling.” “In 2004, requests for emergency food assistance increased by an average of 14% during the year, according to a 27-city study by the United States Conference of Mayors.” (Sound Vision.com 9.13.05).

These are just some of the overwhelming statistics that can be brought forward to attest to the consequences of the compassionate conservative response to those in need. Had Katrina not hit, had the cameras not caught the rampant poverty that brought death and devastation to so many, the outpouring of federal relief that has followed the outpouring of support from every American, a reflection of true compassion, the dollars going now to the poor would not have happened. And that is the issue.

What responsibility has the federal government to those in need? If a major premise of American Democracy rests on the inherent right of each citizen to consent to those who would serve the people, the right of government inherent in the people, then does it not follow that the government must care for its citizens? Is that not the purpose of the government? Given that premise, doesn’t it follow that the economic system utilized by the government must serve the government’s responsibilities to its citizens first before it serves its system?

I think it’s clear that the government has such responsibility. The question should be, does it serve that need only after a catastrophe, a response comparable to our health program in America, or does it address the problems before a catastrophe hits? We know where the poverty is, we know where the unemployment is, we know where the starvation is, we know where the homeless wander the streets, we know the consequences of outsourcing on our workers, we know we could address these problems without waiting for a Katrina to force the issue on us.

Wynton Marsalis wrote the closing essay for TIME magazine, September 19, 2005, an essay of unusual character for TIME that seems to tow a conservative line most of the time.

“This tragedy implores us to re-examine the soul of America. Our democracy from its very beginnings has been challenged by the shackles of slavery. The parade of black folks across our TV screens asking, as if ghosts, ‘Have you seen my father, mother, sister, brother?’ reconnects us all to the still unfulfilled goals of the Reconstruction era. We always back away from fixing our nation’s racial problems. Not fixing the city’s levees before Katrina struck will now cost us untold billions. Not resolving the nation’s issues of race and class has and will cost us so much more.”

Marsalis’ observation forces us and should force our representatives to consider the need to address the issues of poverty and equality now, before the next catastrophe; it is the only moral response, to care for those in need and prevent the dire consequences that results when we do not. Are we prepared to provide for those in need? Have our representatives considered providing funds for people to be resettled, to be housed, to be employed. Have we precedent for caring for those who have nothing? The answer is obviously “yes.” Lyndon Johnson’s “War on Poverty” attempted to address these issues. But our current congressmen and senators seem content to leave the 23 million people receiving emergency food assistance, the equivalent of the combined populations of the 10 largest American cities ­ New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Philadelphia, San Diego, Phoenix, San Antonio, Dallas, and Detroit ­ standing at the door of the shelters that provide hand outs.

Why? Perhaps they have no lobbyists to plead their case, no bank accounts to help fund the Politicians’ coffers, no voices in the media to argue for their needs. Yet our representatives have provided for resettlement and the economic needs of those without personal wealth. These same representatives, the ones that dismembered the welfare programs in the mid 1990s, provided millions of dollars for Soviet and Ethiopian refugees to immigrate to Israel, “first with grants through the Department of State refugee and migration account; second through the housing loan guarantee and Soviet immigrant loan guarantee programs.” “Congress increased the funding level up to $80 million per year in 1992,” and maintained that level yearly through 1998. The level decreased to “$70 million in FY 1999 and to $60 million in FY 2000.” Our current President requested “$60 million for immigrant assistance for FY 2003 and $50 million for FY 2004.” (“Israel: U.S. Foreign Assistance,” updated July 12, 2004, Congressional Research Service, The Library of Congress). The total of these grants and loans comes to approximately $800 million not counting similar grants beginning in 1973. These grants and loans provided for resettlement of immigrants to come to Israel, citizens of another nation.

Quite obviously we have the means to provide housing and resettlement monies for the indigent, and we have a third of our nation’s population living below the poverty line that needs this help. We need only the will to do it. We need the voices that will argue on their behalf. We need representatives who respond to the inherent responsibilities of their position as servants to the people that gave them the right to hold their positions. We need recognition of the moral responsibility that comes with a Democracy that serves the people. We need to address the reality of poverty and of the silent racism that allows for 35.9% of our population to live without in a land that has the means to provide for them. We need to face “The greatest of evils and the worst of crimespoverty.”

William Cook is a professor of English at the University of La Verne in southern California. His book, Psalms for the 21st Century, was published by Mellen Press. His newest book, Tracking Depception, will be released in October. He can be reached at: cookb@ULV.EDU








We published an article entitled “A Saudiless Arabia” by Wayne Madsen dated October 22, 2002 (the “Article”), on the website of the Institute for the Advancement of Journalistic Clarity, CounterPunch, www.counterpunch.org (the “Website”).

Although it was not our intention, counsel for Mohammed Hussein Al Amoudi has advised us the Article suggests, or could be read as suggesting, that Mr Al Amoudi has funded, supported, or is in some way associated with, the terrorist activities of Osama bin Laden and the Al Qaeda terrorist network.

We do not have any evidence connecting Mr Al Amoudi with terrorism.

As a result of an exchange of communications with Mr Al Amoudi’s lawyers, we have removed the Article from the Website.

We are pleased to clarify the position.

August 17, 2005


William A. Cook is the  author of Decade of Deceit and Age of Fools.