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How the Poor Live and Die


Fred A. Wilcox • 15 September 2005

As hurricane Katrina spun toward the Gulf Coast, the National Weather Service warned that high-rise buildings in New Orleans would sway and possibly collapse, peaked roofs would fly off, there would be extensive flooding, and more. At the time, Mr. Bush was riding his mountain bike around his 1700-acre ranch in Texas. The vice president of the United States was fishing in Wyoming. The Secretary of State was attending Broadway plays and buying shoes in exclusive New York City boutiques. Michael Brown, the now disgraced former head of FEMA, kept making dumb and then dumber statements to the media. The director of Homeland Security looked like a little lost boy, hoping that someone would tell him what to do.

The levees broke and floodwaters poured into New Orleans. Thousands of people, the vast majority of them black, fled to shelters, expecting to survive the hurricane and to be rescued once the storm subsided. Soon, food and water ran out, the toilets overflowed, garbage piled up, people got sick and died. Abandoned in a sweltering pit of human misery, these survivors cried out for help. Days passed, help did not arrive. Diabetics went without insulin, the elderly succumbed to dehydration, and mothers nursed their babies next to decomposing bodies.

As the floodwaters recede in Louisiana and elsewhere, the blame game intensifies. Mr. Bush and friends deny that racism played a role in the federal government's sluggish response to hurricane victims. They deny that people were abandoned to drown and to die slowly of starvation and disease because they were black or, regardless of the color of their skin, because they were poor. Mr. Bush says that he intends to find out why the federal government failed the help victims of Katrina. He is going to convene a panel to study this disaster. He will not rest until he learns what the government did right and what it did wrong.

The resident in the White House need not waste the taxpayers' money trying to figure out why poor people were abandoned to die in New Orleans. A visit to most any urban war zone-Washington, D.C., North Philadelphia, South Chicago, East New York, neighborhoods in Milwaukee, Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Boston-will answer that question. In the richest nation on earth, the poor are throwaway people. In the most powerful empire the world has ever known, the poor live in substandard housing, work at low paying jobs, lack health insurance, and suffer from relentless racism and discrimination. In the United States of America the gap between the rich and poor is wider, and growing faster, than in any European nation.

In the early 'Sixties, President Lyndon Baines Johnson declared a "war on poverty." For a brief period it appeared that the government might be serious about helping tens of millions of desperate American citizens. The war in Vietnam ended that illusion, and a series of presidents-Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George Bush the elder, Bill Clinton, and G.W. Bush the younger-chose to use the poor as scapegoats for the nation's ills, or simply to ignore them altogether.

The debacle in New Orleans reveals how little the Democratic and Republican parties care about people who live in poverty. New Orleans demonstrates the country's "let them eat guns and drugs" approach to disadvantaged people. In every major American city, and rural areas as well, the poor are being cut off public assistance, they are losing jobs to sweatshops here and abroad, and they are watching their meager wages diminish as the costs of living increase. Until there's a disaster like Katrina, or the poor rise up in the streets, we pretend they do not exist, or we tell ourselves that the poor are responsible for their plight, and even enjoy their misery.

The Bush administration may rebuild neighborhoods destroyed by the hurricane, but how will the government explain that it has no plans to provide well paying jobs, good schools, and decent housing for all impoverished Americans? Having seen with their own eyes the contempt with which poor people are treated, will Americans now demand that we stop spending billions to destroy Iraq, and start investing in our own country?

Katrina ripped the lid off the myth that the United States is a meritocracy where all citizens have a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. New Orleans exposed how the poor live and die in the richest and most powerful nation on earth. It is impossible to blame the victims of this natural disaster. They were not victims of benign neglect. Their deaths were not an accident. The dead in wheelchairs, lying in the streets, and floating in polluted waters weren't found with ropes around their necks. Nevertheless, it's clear that they were lynched.











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The Blanket - A Journal of Protest & Dissent



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Index: Current Articles

27 September 2005

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Real and Relative Poverty
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How the Poor Live and Die
Fred A Wilcox

Poverty — Do You Get It?
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Defending Multiculturalism
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15 September 2005

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