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Poverty Line

How Hurricane Katrina made America pay attention to poverty.

Mario Tama/Getty Images

It took a few days after New Orleans flooded for the press to breach the mental levee blocking comments on the victims' race and class. But, once that levee finally broke, it washed away pretty quickly. In a furious rant on Thursday, CNN's Jack Cafferty lashed out at journalists' unwillingness to take on the "elephant in the room" and complained that "almost every person we've seen, from the families stranded on their rooftops … to the people holed up in the Superdome, are black and poor." Thereafter, the major networks got in on the action, and, by Sunday, a Fox roundtable was debating Condoleezza Rice's concession that "we do, I think, at some point, need to see that people couldn't evacuate who were poor … [and] understand better how to make sure that that doesn't happen again."

The good news is that we're about to have a long overdue debate about poverty in this country. The bad news is that most of the commentary so far has focused only on poverty as an economic condition. Cafferty observed that "many of [Hurricane Katrina's poor victims] didn't follow the evacuation orders because they didn't have the means to get out of town." Former Senator John Edwards stressed the low rates of car ownership among New Orleans's poor and their need to protect possessions they couldn't afford to replace. That view was echoed among politicians further to his left. "There's a whole segment of society that's being left behind," wrote Representative John Lewis in Newsweek. "When you tell people to evacuate, these people didn't have any way to leave."

Implicit in these arguments is the idea that poor people are pretty much like everyone else, just with less money. From this, it follows that the remedy is primarily financial. Consider Lewis's proposed solution not just for New Orleans but for the problem of urban poverty in general: "[I]n rebuilding, we should see this as an opportunity to rebuild urban America. … There must be a commitment of billions and billions of dollars."

But, if anything, the flooding of New Orleans teaches the opposite lesson--that the problem of poverty isn't just economic, it's also sociological. On Monday, The New York Times' Jodi Wilgoren bylined what may be the most important piece of Katrina coverage to date. Wilgoren followed two families struggling to evacuate New Orleans in the flood's aftermath: one white and middle class (though hardly affluent, as Wilgoren notes), the other black and poor. The outcome of the story will surprise no one. The first family quickly found comfortable accommodations in a northern Louisiana hotel, then a semi-permanent home in a nearby town. As of Saturday, the second family was still shuffling from one endless line to another--hungry, unshowered, unsure of its next move.

What's fascinating are the ways in which the two families navigated, or failed to navigate, the crisis. The matriarch of the middle-class family, a local court clerk, tapped a cousin to secure a low corporate rate at the Lafayette Hilton. She paid for it with her American Express card. The woman then worked connections in local government and churches to land a scarce rental property. She even won a dispensation from local authorities to sneak back into her abandoned house in a quarantined area so she could rescue some televisions and furniture.

Needless to say, the poorer family had no such advantages. The husband had never been out of New Orleans before; the wife had never flown on a plane. Neither appeared to have contacts capable of assimilating them into another community; in any case, the concept of doing so seemed altogether unimaginable to them. And, while the family had $2,000 in savings, they didn't have a bank account. Their money burned up along with their apartment in a fire that followed the flood.

Clearly, a lack of money is far from the only handicap afflicting the poor. They lack the basic life skills, social networks, and general sense of agency that even the slightly more affluent--working-class people--take for granted. The poor black family in Wilgoren's piece certainly could have benefited from a car or a few hundred dollars in aid. But much more valuable would have been instructions beforehand on how to open a bank account. Everyone else learns these sorts of things by following the example of relatives, friends, and neighbors. The problem with acute concentrations of poverty is that they afford few such examples.

Sociologists, of course, are keenly aware that poor people need to be integrated into society as much as they need financial help. But, sadly, there isn't much of a political constituency for this idea. Liberals like Lewis tend to focus either on redressing racial grievances or on the immediate needs of their constituents: food, health care, a subsistence wage. And, with the needs so great, it's hard to blame them. Conservatives do frequently invoke sociology in their analysis of poverty. But, too often, they do it either as an excuse for not spending money, or out of a preoccupation with personal morality. Yet, while out-of-wedlock births, for example, are clearly a problem in New Orleans, they don't entirely explain why so few poor, black New Orleanians were incapable of protecting themselves from the flood. (The black couple in Wilgoren's piece was married, after all.)

It turns out that poverty, like disaster relief, is one of those problems that demands pragmatism and technical competence rather than ideology. In the 1990s, technocrats in the Clinton administration ramped up initiatives like Hope VI and Section 8 housing vouchers--two highly effective programs for integrating the poor into mixed-income neighborhoods. Technocrats outside the administration have led the way since then. In Washington, for example, two former management consultants recently founded a publicly funded boarding school called seed, which imparts life skills and career expectations every bit as much as it tends to the economic privation of its poor, urban students. Seed graduates attend college at remarkably high rates. Both programs reflect the spirit of non-ideological problem-solving that has been out of fashion amid the hyper-partisanship of the Bush era. Now that Katrina has revived our interest in poverty, it'd be a shame if she didn't revive that spirit, too.