Friday, September 02, 2005
Katrina Reveals Flaws in National Character
We saturate the culture with messages that exult individuals at the expense of the community and hype winning at all costs as the American way. It's not surprising that people internalizing these values become thieves in the absence of law enforcement. How can we expect self-restraint in this situation when all external restraints have been literally washed away by floods?
New Orleans embodied the trends that prevail in America today. More and more, our cities resemble third world outposts. Last Tuesday, buried by the disaster news, the US Census Bureau released a report showing that more and more Americans slipped over the line into poverty. Numbers of citizens without health care increased, and real wages for most of us declined. One of the hallmarks of third world nations, the enormous gap between rich and poor, continues to expand rapidly in the USA.
Concentrated pockets of extreme poverty spread from inner cities to the suburbs, and now threaten to swallow entire metropolitan areas. By the time inner ring suburbs realize poverty metastacized to their cities, the cancer has spread too far to save the patient. People with means move further and further out, draining the centers of resources that could combat the problems. The future of the American urban landscape, like the disaster in New Orleans, is easily foreseen. If present trends continue, our children will live in heavily armed enclaves of wealth or surrounding oceans of grinding poverty.
Successful strategies to combat the decay and decline of our metropolitan complexes have been known in scholarly circles for some time. For example, Metropolitics by Myron Orfield contains a clear, concise explanation of the causes, effects and the inevitable spread of pockets of extreme poverty. (One surprising finding: tax structures designed to foster development create a situation in which the poorest neighborhoods actually subsidize the richest, exacerbating the problem.) Orfield also reports on political strategies to fight the growing blight. The first step, as with all problems, is to admit there is a problem. Next, the metro area community must take responsibility for the solution.
But we live in a nation that acts as though extreme poverty is a lifestyle choice. We require women on welfare to leave their children and work. We pretend that lack of health insurance results from laziness; we suppose if the uninsured had jobs, they would have employer provided insurance. We fault the poor for their condition. We blame them, tell them to get jobs, clean up, be like us. We ignore the lack of jobs, low pay, no healthcare, no daycare, no education, no opportunity.
That destruction of New Orleans was inevitable was well known to engineers familiar with the waterways of southeast Louisiana. Scientific American published a detailed account, The Drowning of New Orleans in 2001. It's a pity that the fine folks at FEMA do not read Scientific American. As I recall, the engineers proposed many ideas on how to manage the waters of southeast Louisiana. The expense of the improvements kept them out of public awareness.
As often noted, the catastrophe of Katrina hit the poor the hardest. People with sense and means left the city. Large numbers could not leave the city because they did not have cars. If they did, many could not afford to pay for gas, food and shelter. Now they are refugees.
Prominent black leaders are asking us not to call them "refugees." One of them said recently "They are Americans."
The ugly truth is that they are both, Americans and refugees, fleeing this catastrophe as helplessly and desperately as the hopeless populations threatened in the Sudan.
As other American metro areas gallop towards third world status, we should pause to think of the consequences of our reckless policies.
To be fair, the crises brought out the best in many people. The attitude of the people abandoned at the New Orleans convention center is presently one of trying to help each other. Stories of heroism and kindness emerge hourly.
But attitudes of kindness and helping each other are reserved for the American response to life-threatening emergencies. The everyday attitude of Americans measures the moral worth of an individual by the size of his bank account. Material success is seen as flowing from virtues of hard work, thrift, and entrepreneurial spirit. Despite the dismal scandals of the S & Ls, the rapacious and destructive corporate failures of Enron, WorldCom and others, despite the business pages daily reporting on convictions of business leaders, despite the brutal personnel policies of Jack Welch, despite CEOs earning hundreds of millions while destroying the wealth of their shareholders, despite all that -- we trust giant multinational companies more than we trust our own government. We all expect to be rich one day. After all, we are Americans.
Not that the government has done well with Katrina. But the government does respond to elections. And when we want to, we can hold elected officials accountable for failures.
We Americans expect to fend for ourselves. We do not ask for handouts from the public purse. Well, we do make allowances for energy companies like Exxon. They recorded record profits in the billions; but congress, in its wisdom, decreed they should have tax credits that also add up to billions. But I digress. We revile welfare cheats, while we tolerate non-compliance with the income tax. (According to the IRS, approximately 15% of all income taxes owed are not paid.)
We cut Medicaid benefits for tens of thousands of poor while strenuously arguing for the elimination of estate taxes that literally affect only a few dozen people each year. Oops, another digression.
The economy of the United States moves far more people into poverty each year than it makes wealthy. Large numbers of poor, with no resources, are inherently destabilizing in a time of crises. People with nothing to loose who are driven to desperation will act out of that desperation. They will riot in Los Angeles or loot in New Orleans. The cities are primed to burn. The policies we have in place today, cutting taxes for the rich and benefits for the poor, add fuel to the fire.
Of course, no other great city in the United States developed below sea level, between a large lake and the Mississippi. Similar natural disasters appear highly unlikely. But the United States has many enemies. God help us if any city faces a man-made disaster of like proportions. The multitudes of poor will again suffer. We will help each other until some new distraction moves the crises off the front pages. Then, as we did after the riots of the sixties and the eighties, we will forget. We will return to our "normal" attitudes of closing our eyes to the unraveling of the social fabric.
In the long run, in the absence of acute crises, God's help is certainly the only help we can count on. In the current "every-man-for-himself" climate, we dare not count on each other.
Katrina holds up a magnifying mirror to our culture. It's hard not to look away.
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