On this 30th anniversary of Shelterforce, it makes sense to take a more global approach to addressing the problems unmasked by Hurricane Katrina. We need to not only recognize the problems that existed in communities prior to the hurricane, but also work to ensure that similar situations do not repeat themselves.
There are few positives we can ascribe to Hurricane Katrina. One exception is the myriad of examples of neighbors helping neighbors through this tragedy. Perhaps another is the reminder to many in America, and the world, that desperate poverty persists even in the world’s most profitable national economy.
Before the hurricane, folks in the Delta were victims of economic and social deprivation that locked far too many people in near hopeless situations. Many in America asked immediately, “Why didn’t folks in Mississippi, Alabama and Louisiana get in their cars and move?” People now understand that, for many, no car or bus fare existed and no place of refuge was available.
Hurricane Katrina forced America to focus on the dearth of educational, medical, housing and economic opportunities in these communities. Consider President Bush’s comments on Sept 15, 2005: “As all of us saw on television, there’s also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality. When the streets are rebuilt, there should be many new businesses, including minority-owned businesses, along those streets. When the houses are rebuilt, more families should own, not rent, those houses. When the regional economy revives, local people should be prepared for the jobs being created.”
For the poor, the housing stock available before the hurricane was overpriced, uninsured and flimsy. The public housing in the New Orleans area had the dubious distinction of being the “worst public housing in America.” Lack of access to credit, capital and basic banking services ensured that folks living in these Delta states would have much greater difficulty building wealth and pursuing their vision of the American Dream.
By working in partnership, we can make a difference for these and other people and create healthier and sustainable communities. First, community leaders must take a more holistic approach to solving persistent poverty problems. Many nonprofit leaders, policymakers, even elected officials, focus on their own specialty areas, such as community development, healthcare and education. It is at the intersection where all these different issues converge that healthy and sustainable communities begin to flourish.
We must form stronger coalitions and have educational specialists supporting community development initiatives, and they in turn supporting healthcare improvements. Social service agencies must make time for economic development agencies that then make time for livable wages and voter rights’ efforts. Environmentalists must work with the faith-based community to improve education and job opportunities.
In sum, each community leader or nonprofit must continue to be effective in its respective area of responsibility and mission. But we also need to be supportive of our brothers and sisters working in other program areas designed to improve the lot of poor people.
For example, consider this year’s HUD budget, the primary vehicle for the production of low-income housing. That budget in real dollars is roughly one half of what it was under the Reagan Administration. Typically, the HUD secretary, the White House and Congress will receive a few thousand comments asking that this budget be increased to meet the needs of homeless and under-housed people. Imagine if, through collaborations and coalitions, we increased these few thousand comments to tens of thousands. This will not occur unless people working in the myriad fields for justice see the need to become more active in supporting each other.
Imagine if health care providers, thousands of ministers, environmentalists, social service providers and others locked arms on such issues and spoke as one voice. Imagine the impact if a congressional committee considering an important environmental issue were to receive comments from across the country and broad swaths of people.
The poverty unmasked by Hurricane Katrina is the same poverty that persists in Appalachia, in Detroit, in Anchorage and in much of urban and rural America. We must use this natural disaster to destroy the man-made policies and programs that allow poverty to grow and persist.
Conservative and liberal Americans from every community have opened their hearts and wallets to assist the victims of Hurricane Katrina. If many of these same generous folks had been asked before the hurricane to have Congress assist these folks with their health care, education, housing and other needs, there would have been, for many, great hesitation. They would have objected to paying more taxes to address these issues. Too many Americans have little or no real meaningful contact on issues surrounding poverty – they are insulated in their own communities and then fed a steady diet of talk show and television news that blames the victims for their problems.
Community leaders must bridge the chasm that exists between mainstream America’s perceptions versus the reality of poverty in America. In doing this, we must understand that our words and messages matter as well as how these ideas are received by different people.
In order to have the impact on poverty that we all seek, we must step out of our familiar and specific professional fields to coalesce with other leaders and effectively communicate what we know to be the reality about poverty in America.
There are many coalitions that exist for the express purpose of promoting this critically needed collaboration. The National Community Reinvestment Coalition, National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition are but a few of such organizations. Join us, join others, but by all means let’s lock arms and work more synergistically to support efforts to end injustice in America. None of us can afford to do otherwise.