What The Waters Have Revelaed

In what may be the most catastrophic natural disaster in

American history, the waters of Hurricane Katrina are washing

away our national denial of just how many Americans are living

in poverty, our reluctance to admit the still persistent

connection of race and poverty in America, and even the

political power of a conservative ideology that, for decades

now, has seriously eroded the idea of the common good.

The pictures from New Orleans have stunned the nation. They have

exposed the stark realities of who is suffering the most, who

was left behind, who was waiting in vain for help to arrive, and

who is facing the most difficult challenges of recovery. The

face of those stranded in New Orleans was overwhelmingly poor

and black, the very old and the very young. They were the ones

who could not evacuate; had no cars or money for gas; no money

for bus, train, or airfare; no budget for hotels or no friends

or family with room to share or spare. They were already

vulnerable before this calamity, now they were totally exposed

and on their own. For days, nobody came for them. And the

conditions of the places they were finally herded to ("like

animals," many testified) sickened the nation.

From the reporters covering the unprecedented disaster to

ordinary Americans glued to their televisions watching their

reports, a shocked and even outraged response was repeated, "I

didn't realize how many Americans were poor." Powerful images

have emerged along with the pictures. "We have now seen what is

under the rock in America," said a carpenter in Washington DC.

The vulnerability of the poorest children in New Orleans has

been especially riveting to many Americans, especially other

parents. Many say they had trouble holding back their tears when

they saw mothers with their babies stranded on rooftops crying

for help or jammed into dangerous and dirty places waiting for

help to arrive. And the pictures may get worse as countless

bodies are brought out of New Orleans. Even Homeland Security

Director, Michael Chertoff, is warning that it will be horrible

and gruesome. Clearly, a very high percentage of those bodies

will be poor, black, elderly, and even children. The public

anger may grow.

As a direct result of Katrina and its aftermath, and for the

first time in many years, the media are reporting on poverty,

telling Americans that New Orleans had an overall poverty rate

of 28% (84% of them African-American), and a child poverty rate

of almost 50% - half of all the city's children (rates only a

little higher than other major cities and actually a little

lower than some others). Ironically (and some might say

providentially) the annual U. S. Census poverty report came out

during the Hurricane's deadly assault showing that poverty had

risen for the fourth straight year with 37 million Americans

stuck below the poverty line - and they were the ones most stuck

in New Orleans.

Katrina has revealed what was already there in America; an

invisible and mostly silent poverty that we have chosen not to

talk about, let alone to take responsibility for in the richest

nation on earth. This week, we all saw it; and so did the rest

of the world. And it made Americans feel both compassionate and

ashamed. Many political leaders and commentators, across the

ideological spectrum, have acknowledged the national tragedy,

not just of the horrendous storm, but of the realities the flood

waters have exposed. And some have suggested that if the

aftermath of Katrina finally leads the nation to demand

solutions to the poverty of upwards of a third of its citizens

then something good might come from this terrible disaster.

That is what we must all work toward. Rescuing those still in

danger, assisting those in dire need, relocating and caring for

the homeless, and beginning the process of recovery and

re-building are all top priorities. But dealing with the stark

and shameful social and racial realities Katrina has revealed

must become our longer term but clear goal. That will require a

combination of public and private initiatives, the merger of

personal and social responsibility, the rebuilding of both

families and communities, but also the confronting of hard

questions about national priorities. Most of all it will require

us to make different choices.

The critical needs of poor and low-income families must become

the first priority of federal and state legislatures, not the

last. And, the blatant inequalities of race in America,

especially in critical areas of education, jobs, health care,

and housing which have come to the surface must now be

addressed. Congressional pork barrel spending which aligns with

political power more than human needs must be challenged as

never before.That requires a complete reversal of the political

logic now operating in Washington and state capitols around the

country - a new moral logic must re-shape our political habits.

In the face of this natural disaster, during a time of war, with

already rising deficits; new budgets cuts to vital programs like

food stamps and Medicaid, and more tax cuts for the wealthy in

the form of estate tax repeal and capital gains and stock

dividend reductions, would now be both irresponsible and

shameless.

Restoring the hope of America's poorest families, renewing our

national infrastructures, protecting our environmental

stability, and rethinking our most basic priorities will require

nothing less than a national change of heart and direction. It

calls for a transformation of political ethics and governance;

moving from serving private interests to ensuring the public

good. If Katrina changes our political conscience and

re-invigorates among us a commitment to the common good, then

even this terrible tragedy might be redeemed.

Take the Katrina Pledge!

The poverty we have witnessed on the rooftops of New Orleans and

the devastated communities of the Gulf Coast is morally

unacceptable. It's time to take action - starting with a renewed

personal commitment to overcoming poverty in America.

If you care about building a new America, read and sign the

Katrina Pledge today!: http://go.sojo.net/campaign/katrinapledge/8uiiex2l5t7dmm?

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