Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans on August 26 and here it is mid September and I’ve yet to even mention it. It isn’t because I have no interest. On the contrary, I was one of the many who sat for many hours in front of the television in the days afterwards, wondering how it is that such a mess was allowed to happen. And by mess, I mean the human reaction to the storm both before and after it hit.
(Don’t get me started on that silliness about how “God struck that evil city / country / president.” The aftermath of a major is storm is no time to get puffy and self righteous. God is the ultimate cause of everything that exists, including the laws of nature. There is nothing to be gained by claiming that Katrina was not a normal storm, but one caused miraculously by God.)
I have been reluctant to jump into the waters on this one because New Orleans is a very long way from the west coast of Canada. I have no burning need to either jump in with a “me too!” or stick my neck out on a subject I’m not in much of a position to say anything about. Until now, that is. Now we’re starting to see analysis of the response, and just how the crisis of the poor and stranded in the first few days came about. On those things I’ll venture an opinon.
In my neck of the woods, the minorities are not poor or black, they’re Hong Kong Chinese ranging from middle class to very wealthy. We also have a number of Sihks in the Valley and they do pretty well running a lot of the farms around here. If a earthquake and / or tsunami were to level Vancouver, it’s hard to imagine the scene being like it was in New Orleans for the first week after the storm. The people most at risk here would be the very poorest people in the city, many of whom are native.
This is not to say that there is anything inherently wrong with native people, and by extension, I don’t think Katrina’s aftermath can be used to argue there is something wrong with blacks. Why is it then, that these groups are so abundantly represented among those who struggle to get by? It has to be observed that not all blacks are poor, and locally, not all natives are either. Just the other day I saw a news story on a native band that was making millions with a winery that they started up outside Osoyoos (yup, spelled that right!). George Will points out that, in the U.S., most blacks are middle class. This suggests that the problem is not anything inherent to race, since it has a limited effect.
Some American liberals are claiming that the culprit is poverty. Writing in the WSJ, Brendan Miniter observes that:
[The] debate has so far largely focused on race and class to explain why tens of thousands of poor people were left behind to fend for themselves in a flooding city. Liberals are now blaming small-government conservatism for cutting “antipoverty” programs. That’s a tune a surprising number of people are starting to hum, from NAACP chairman Julian Bond to New York Times columnist David Brooks, who speculated recently that the storm will probably spark a new progressive movement in America. The lyrics are still being written, but the refrain for this ditty is a familiar one: Small government conservatives did it to us again.
Miniter himself disagrees with that theory, as do I. One has to ask, where did the poverty come from? I’m not being facile. Why do some manage to overcome it, while others do not? If some can overcome it, then it can’t be that poverty causes poverty. If that were true, then no one would escape it and we’d be having this conversation in a cave, leaning over a fire pit.
George Will points us in the right direction. He writes:
The senator [Barack Obama], 44, is just 30 months older than the “war on poverty” that President Johnson declared in January 1964. Since then the indifference that is as bad as active malice has been expressed in more than $6.6 trillion of anti-poverty spending, strictly defined.
The senator is called a “new kind of Democrat,” which often means one with new ways of ignoring evidence discordant with old liberal orthodoxies about using cash — much of it spent through liberalism’s “caring professions” — to cope with cultural collapse. He might, however, care to note three not-at-all recondite rules for avoiding poverty: Graduate from high school, don’t have a baby until you are married, don’t marry while you are a teenager. Among people who obey those rules, poverty is minimal.
Liberalism’s post-Katrina fearlessness in discovering the obvious — if an inner city is inundated, the victims will be disproportionately minorities — stopped short of indelicately noting how many of the victims were women with children but not husbands. Because it was released during the post-Katrina debacle, scant attention was paid to the National Center for Health Statistics’ report that in 2003, 34.6 percent of all American births were to unmarried women. The percentage among African American women was 68.2.
Given that most African Americans are middle class and almost half live outside central cities, and that 76 percent of all births to Louisiana African Americans were to unmarried women, it is a safe surmise that more than 80 percent of African American births in inner-city New Orleans — as in some other inner cities — were to women without husbands. That translates into a large and constantly renewed cohort of lightly parented adolescent males, and that translates into chaos in neighborhoods and schools, come rain or come shine.
Will is arguing that adherence to a strong moral code is the missing ingredient, that it is the reason why some can overcome poverty and some struggle with it. This ought to be good news. Successful strategies for maintaining family and community health can be taught, probably for a fraction of what the ‘war on poverty’ has cost. If he is right, we also have ammunition against those who would be dismissive of those caught in Katrina’s wake – those who argue about “those people.” Family and community health is primarily the result of how people in those communities are oriented towards one another. If they stick together, they can create, conserve and share resources. If they do not, then it will fall to the young and the strong to take what they can, while they can.
There will always be those who are poor by being unlucky enough to outlive all their relatives, who are disabled or injured in some way, and there is no reason why we can’t marshall resources to help them out. Most of those trapped at the Superdome did not fall into those categories, although some did.
Turning to the WSJ again:
We still only have anecdotal evidence to go on, and we can be hopeful as the death toll remains far below the thousands originally predicted. But it’s reasonable to surmise that Sen. Kennedy is correct about those who wanted to leave: Most people who could arrange for their own transportation got out of harms way; those who depended on the government (and public transportation) were left for days to the mercy of armed thugs at the Superdome and Convention Center. It was an extreme example of what the welfare state has done to the poor for decades: use the promise of food, shelter and other necessities to lure most of the poor to a few central points and then leave them stranded and nearly helpless.
This isn’t a failure of President Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Nor is it evidence that Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of smaller government is fatally flawed. If LBJ had won his war on poverty, Ninth Ward residents would have had the means to drive themselves out of New Orleans. Instead, after decades and billions of tax dollars have been poured into big government programs, one out of four people in the Big Easy were still poor. That is an indictment of the welfare state and all its antipoverty programs.
The trouble with anti poverty programs that are too generous is that they serve to break down the cause and effect relationship between decisions that we make. I’m not arguing that the intent behind such programs is malign, but we have a responsibility to observe the results of our actions and if need be, concede that they might be ill founded. People are not turnips that will flourish – guaranteed! – if only we will give them the right amount of water and fertilizer. People live in relationships with one another and it is those webs of relation that need to be cared for. If the webs in New Orleans had been healthier, there would have been fewer people stranded and those charged with their care would not have been content to send them to the dome when there were busses that could have been used to get them out. Needless to say, such a society would not loot it’s neighbors or shoot at its rescuers.