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08 September 2005 @ 03:48 pm
poverty and the rampant ignorance surrounding it  
A co-worker received an email from a relative quoting an unknown writer with a decidedly blame the victim viewpoint. I was moved to intersperse my comments and reply. Here it is:

Tapati:As a former welfare Mom, there is nothing new to me in this perspective, but I will intersperse some commentary that you are more than welcome to share.

Relative of co-worker: Sorry, I don't know who the author is, but the points are very well taken.

Unknown author:It has taken four long days for state and federal officials to figure out how to deal with the disaster in New Orleans. I can't blame them, because it has also taken me four long days to figure out what is going on there. The reason is that the events there make no sense if you think that we are confronting a natural disaster.

If this is just a natural disaster, the response for public officials is obvious: you bring in food, water, and doctors; you! send transportation to evacuate refugees to temporary shelters; you send engineers to stop the flooding and rebuild the city's infrastructure. For journalists, natural disasters also have a familiar pattern: the heroism of ordinary people pulling together to survive; the hard work and dedication of doctors, nurses, and rescue workers; the steps being taken to clean up and rebuild.

Public officials did not expect that the first thing they would have to do is to send thousands of armed troops in armored vehicle, as if they are suppressing an enemy insurgency. And journalists--myself included--did not expect that the story would not be about rain, wind, and flooding, but about rape, murder, and looting.


Tapati:I am amazed that this person could not see that the anger and desperation built up because there was no timely response in this case, causing people who already feel forgotten and despised to conclude that they didn't matter to our government and that they needed to save themselves by comandeering what resources they could. (Combined with a criminal element that exists in all cities everywhere who saw this as an opportunity.)

Unknown author:But this is not a natural disaster. It is a man-made disaster.

The man-made disaster is not an inadequate or incompetent response by federal relief agencies, and it was not directly caused by Hurricane Katrina. This is where just about every newspaper and television channel has gotten the story wrong.

Tapati:I disagree, the delay in help arriving can be directly connected to the gutting of FEMA, which worked very well during the Clinton years.

Unknown author: The man-made disaster we are now witnessing in New Orleans did not happen over the past four days. It happened over the past four decades. Hurricane Katrina merely exposed it to public view.

The man-made disaster is the welfare state.

Tapati: While I have many complaints myself about how welfare is administered, I notice the writer does not suggest any other way to care for women and children abandoned by the father of the children, until they can get on their feet. Nor do I notice the writer talking about improving education received by the children of the poor so that they are better able to care for themselves in the event of divorce. Why is there such a huge gap between public and private education? Why do poor people receive the dregs of our educational system? Why don't we have afterschool study programs and mentoring for these children to assist them in their education? Why don't we spend more on the front end of life to avoid the costs at the other end? Instead we give these kids the message early on that we don't *really* care about them and then we wonder why they grow into angry adults. Have you spent time in an inner city school lately?

Unknown author: For the past few days, I have found the news from New Orleans to be confusing. People were not behaving as you would expect them to behave in an emergency--indeed, they were not behaving as they have behaved in other emergencies. That is what has shocked so many people: they have been saying that this is not what we expect from America. In fact, it is not even what we expect from a Third World country.

Tapati: When I was in the Loma Prieta quake we had food the next day.

That's true in most of these natural disasters I've seen.

That didn't happen here, and imagine how angry you'd be if you went without food and water for a couple of days? Then help starts to arrive and you're anxious it will go to other people who are viewed as more worthy in the eyes of society. And does no one notice the many poor black people who were behaving well under these circumstances? I don't see any questioning here of the racism behind letting the actions of a small percentage suddenly be magnified into representing the actions of everyone there.



Unknown author: When confronted with a disaster, people usually rise to the occasion. They work together to rescue people in danger, and they spontaneously organize to keep order and solve problems. This is especially true in America. We are an enterprising people, used to relying on our own initiative rather than waiting around for the government to take care of us. I have seen this a hundred times, in small examples (a small town whose main traffic light had gone out, causing ordinary citizens to get out of their cars and serve as impromptu traffic cops, directing cars through the intersection) and large ones (the spontaneous response of New Yorkers to September 11).

Tapati: And many people did rise to the occasion. Yet this was an extraordinary occasion and they had few resources to utilize. Let's remember that most of New York was not suddenly turned into a swamp, and most New Yorkers still had access to food and water.



Unknown author: So what explains the chaos in New Orleans?

To give you an idea of the magnitude of what is going on, here is a description from a Washington Times story:

"Storm victims are raped and beaten; fights erupt with flying fists, knives and guns; fires are breaking out; corpses litter the streets; and police and rescue helicopters are repeatedly fired on.

"The plea from Mayor C. Ray Nagin came even as National Guardsmen poured in to restore order and stop the looting, carjackings and gunfire....

"Last night, Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco said 300 Iraq-hardened Arkansas National Guard members were inside New Orleans with shoot-to-kill orders.

"'These troops are...under my orders to restore order in the streets,' she said. 'They have M-16s, and they are locked and loaded. These troops know how to shoot and kill and they are more than willing to do so if necessary and I expect they will.' "

The reference to Iraq is eerie. The photo that accompanies this article shows National Guard troops, with rifles and armored vests, riding on an armored vehicle through trash-strewn streets lined by a rabble of squalid, listless people, one of whom appears to be yelling at them. It looks exactly like a scene from Sadr City in Baghdad.

What explains bands of thugs using a natural disaster as an excuse for an orgy of looting, armed robbery, and rape? What causes unruly mobs to storm the very buses that have arrived to evacuate them, causing the drivers to drive away, frightened for their lives? What causes people to attack the doctors trying to treat patients at the Super Dome?

Tapati: The unruly mobs feared they would never get out unless they comandeered the buses for themselves, because society has taught them well that no one cares about them.

Unknown author: Why are people responding to natural destruction by causing further destruction? Why are they attacking the people who are trying to help them?

My wife, Sherri, figured it out first, and she figured it out on a sense-of-life level. While watching the coverage last night on Fox News Channel, she told me that she was getting a familiar feeling. She studied architecture at the Illinois Institute of Chicago, which is located in the South Side of Chicago just blocks away from the Robert Taylor Homes, one of the largest high-rise public housing projects in America. "The projects," as they were known, were infamous for uncontrollable crime and irremediable squalor. (They have since, mercifully, been demolished <http://tinyurl.com/9hu4u> .)

Tapati: Yes, projects are not a good way to house poor people as it leads to increased despair. Often no one running them cares enough to monitor and evict the criminal element so that the honest poor people are protected.

Contrast that to the government housing I lived in, a triplex in a normal middle class neighborhood. Although my middle class neighbors fought it being built (a nice message to us) they later got to know us and reduced their fear of poor people. Projects exist to keep poor people out of the sight of middle class people, so they don't need to confront unpleasant facts like poverty. We know we're not wanted, we know we're despised. And why the strong reactions? We are the specter you fear as you live paycheck to paycheck in a society where even technical jobs are being shipped overseas.



Unknown author: What Sherri was getting from last night's television coverage was a whiff of the sense of life of "the projects." Then the "crawl"--the informational phrases flashed at the bottom of the screen on most news channels--gave some vital statistics to confirm this sense: 75% of the residents of New Orleans had already evacuated before the hurricane, and of the 300,000 or so who remained, a large number were from the city's public housing projects. Jack Wakeland then gave me an additional, crucial fact: early reports from CNN and Fox indicated that the city had no plan for evacuating all of the prisoners in the city's jails--so they just let many of them loose. There is no doubt a significant overlap between these two populations--that is, a large number of people in the jails used to live in the housing projects, and vice versa.

There were many decent, innocent people trapped in New Orleans when the deluge hit--but they were trapped alongside large numbers of people from two groups: criminals--and wards of the welfare state, people selected, over decades, for their lack of initiative and self-induced helplessness. The welfare wards were a mass of sheep--on whom the incompetent administration of New Orleans unleashed a pack of wolves.

Tapati: It was obvious to me that the criminals were a small but well armed group. They are simply more noticeable by their activity and the amount of repetitious play it received on news channels. Notice how NONE of the welfare recipients are seen as potentially innocent in the description by this unknown author. I could also write volumes about the phrase "self induced helplessness" and someday, perhaps I will.



Unknown author: All of this is related, incidentally, to the apparent incompetence of the city government, which failed to plan for a total evacuation of the city, despite the knowledge that this might be necessary. But in a city corrupted by the welfare state, the job of city officials is to ensure the flow of handouts to welfare recipients and patronage to political supporters--not to ensure a lawful, orderly evacuation in case of emergency.

Tapati: The city called for an evacuation and both city and state officials communicated this need to FEMA. It is FEMA who has the power to say where they can evacuate to. Otherwise they would have loaded up buses with poor people and...what...drove around the state looking for a place to take them? FEMA is supposed to coordinate relief efforts and connect local survivors with resources out of their area that they can utilize.

FEMA has been stripped down precisely because the Bush Administration believes this doctrine that locals should be able to handle their own disaster relief. Does this make sense? If you have a house fire, do you think that you're going to use your own resources to recover from it, find a place to spend the night, get clothing and food? Or do you hope that the Red Cross helps you over the initial hump until you have time to meet with your insurance agent? When our home, our city, our state has been burned, shaken by an earthquake or flooded by a hurricane, we rely on people who have resources outside our disaster area for the initial help we need. But the Bush Administration didn't believe that, and effectively crippled FEMA and appointed someone with no prior disaster management experience to its head.




Unknown author: No one has really reported this story, as far as I can tell. In fact, some are already actively distorting it, blaming President Bush, for example, for failing to personally ensure that the Mayor of New Orleans had drafted an adequate evacuation plan. The worst example is an execrable piece from the Toronto Globe and Mail <http://tinyurl.com/ah5j7> , by a supercilious Canadian who blames the chaos on American "individualism." But the truth is precisely the opposite: the chaos was caused by a system that was the exact opposite of individualism.

What Hurricane Katrina exposed was the psychological consequences of the welfare state. What we consider "normal" behavior in an emergency is behavior that is normal for people who have values and take the responsibility to pursue and protect them. People with values respond to a disaster by fighting against it and doing whatever it takes to overcome the difficulties they face. They don't sit around and complain that the government hasn't taken care of them. They don't use the chaos of a disaster as an opportunity to prey on their fellow men.

But what about criminals and welfare parasites? Do they worry about saving their houses and property? They don't, because they don't own anything. Do they worry about what is going to happen to their businesses or how they are going to make a living? They never worried about those things before. Do they worry about crime and looting? But living off of stolen wealth is a way of life for them.

Tapati: I am most offended, of course, by this characterization of welfare "parasites." I am more than making up in tax money the meager pittance I was given that kept us well below the poverty level. I did own things, I owned books and clothes and toys and books for my kids, a small tv, and other household items and I'd be no more happy to lose them than you would be to lose your home. In fact, many poor people stayed in their homes because they were afraid to lose what little they had to looters.

I am always amazed at the outrage against welfare moms (such a tiny portion of the federal budget) but I see no outrage against corporate welfare, subsidies given to corporations that they will supposedly utilize to provide jobs and better wages as they are more competitive in the market place. Instead it seems like their CEOs get the bulk of the profit in their inflated salaries. Living off the stolen wealth of our tax money granted to them by the legislators and presidents they support with campaign dollars is a way of life for them.

My journey out of welfare was blocked at every step by a system designed to keep us in our place. It took every bit of my intelligence and ingenuity to get through college in spite of the roadblocks in my way trying to track me into a low paid job. Yet with my higher wages I am able to give back more to the country that, however grudgingly, supported my kids and I through my years of schooling.




Unknown author: The welfare state--and the brutish, uncivilized mentality it sustains and encourages--is the man-made disaster that explains the moral ugliness that has swamped New Orleans. And that is the story that ! no one is reporting.

Tapati: What we really need to change is the attitudes of the middle and upper class towards poor people, and then they might be moved to create more opportunity for us to move up the economic ladder.

For the story about the gutting of FEMA, here is Salon's account:

http://www.salon.com/opinion/blumenthal/2005/09/08/limited_government/index.html

Excerpt:


FEMA's success as a showcase federal agency made it an inviting target for the incoming Bush team. Allbaugh, Bush's former campaign manager, became the new director, and he immediately began to dismantle the professional staff, privatize many functions and degrade its operations. In his testimony before the Senate, Allbaugh attacked the agency he headed as an example of unresponsive bureaucracy: "Many are concerned that Federal disaster assistance may have evolved into both an oversized entitlement program and a disincentive to effective State and local risk management. Expectations of when the Federal Government should be involved and the degree of involvement may have ballooned beyond what is an appropriate level. We must restore the predominant role of State and local response to most disasters."

After Sept. 11, 2001, FEMA was subsumed into the new Department of Homeland Security and lost its Cabinet rank. The staff was cut by more than 10 percent, and the budget has been cut every year since and most of its disaster relief efforts disbanded. "Three out of every four dollars the agency provides in local preparedness and first-responder grants go to terrorism-related activities, even though a recent Government Accountability Office report quotes local officials as saying what they really need is money to prepare for natural disasters and accidents," the Los Angeles Times reported.
 
 
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