Getting Past Katrina

By Juan Williams, a senior correspondent for NPR and a political analyst for Fox News Channel and the author of Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America (THE NEW YORK TIMES, 01/09/06):

A year ago this week, the entire nation caught a chilling look in the mirror. We watched as the citizens of New Orleans, clutching their essential belongings in plastic trash bags, struggled through fetid flood waters in search of shelter. But even with all that’s been said and written on this painful anniversary, one of the real issues remains unaddressed.

The shock of Hurricane Katrina awoke many of us to the reality that poverty persists, especially among African-Americans. It persists even after the go-go 1990’s, the welfare-to-work reform of the Clinton years and the passage of earned-income tax credits to put more money in the pockets of the working poor.

In fact, poverty in the United States has been on the rise since the start of the new century. The number of Americans in poverty is now 12.6 percent overall, essentially holding steady after having risen for four years. The number of the nation’s children in poverty — also climbing until last year — is even more alarming, at close to 18 percent. But even before the great storm, New Orleans was a city of concentrated poverty: nearly a quarter of the population, about double the national average. And the poverty rate among New Orleans blacks (nearly 70 percent of the city’s population) was a sky-high 35 percent.

For a brief time our guilt and shame seemed to put America on the political edge of a new try at something like a 1960’s-era Great Society program. But that newfound energy was squandered amid racial and political arguments.

First, the left made the case that the reason the government was failing to help the desperate, bedraggled poor people left behind in New Orleans was that the faces on television were black — and a Republican administration ruled in Washington. The power of that argument failed when it became apparent that poor white people, both in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast, had also suffered because of FEMA’s incompetence.

The right, meanwhile, depicted the poor — that is to say the black poor, because TV cameras focused on the big city — as looters, rapists and criminals. But when those claims turned out not to be true, there was no return to the core issue of how to help the poor escape poverty.

A year later, the best the national political class can do with American poverty is to renew stalemated conversations about increasing the minimum wage. The will to create innovative programs is missing because of a national consensus few people dare to say out loud: Americans believe that the poor can help themselves.

A Pew Research Center poll (conducted the week after Hurricane Katrina) found that two-thirds of black Americans and three-quarters of white Americans believe that too many poor people are overly dependent on government aid. Inside those numbers is the sense that welfare programs meant to help the poor create a dependency on handouts, draining people of the confidence, will to work and values that are crucial to success.

This is telling, because people of color and especially black Americans are more likely than whites to know someone who is struggling with poverty. According to the Census Bureau, 24.7 percent of black Americans and 21.9 percent of Hispanics lived in poverty in 2004, as compared to 8.6 percent of whites. Interestingly, the same proportion of black Americans who say the black poor need to do more to help themselves also told pollsters that they felt the government would have done more to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina had those victims been white. But it’s clear that even with a strong racial consciousness, black people believe that the poor bear some responsibility for their troubles.

There is good reason for a majority of Americans to hold that belief. For anyone who wants to get out of poverty, the prescription is clear.

Finish high school, at least. Wait until your 20’s before marrying, and wait until you’re married before having children. Once you’re in the work force, stay in: take any job, because building on the experience will prepare you for a better job. Any American who follows that prescription will be at almost no risk of falling into extreme poverty. Statistics show it.

The suspicion that the poor cause problems for themselves was at the heart of President Clinton’s effort to “end welfare as we know it.” It is also the guiding principle in the latest wave of poverty programs. Backed by private dollars from nonprofits and foundations, these programs encourage individual responsibility by rewarding the poor for getting high school diplomas, finding jobs and being good parents. There are programs to help determined inner-city residents find good jobs in the suburbs, where they can live in neighborhoods that haven’t been defined for generations by the bad schools and rampant crime that breed poverty. The emphasis is on nurturing a will to do better.

Bill Cosby’s controversial appeal, in 2004, for the poor to see — and seize — the opportunities available to them is in line with the inspiring African-American tradition of self-help and reliance on strong families and neighbors. There were complaints that he was blaming the victim, minimizing the power of racism, and failing to understand that larger social forces keep the poor — especially black poor — at the bottom of the economic ladder. But Mr. Cosby’s critics ignored some sound advice: getting those in need to recognize that there is a way out, and that it’s in their power to find it, is the best anti-poverty program.

The crisis in New Orleans has now been reduced to a matter of government financing for rebuilding homes while reviving the business community. But the real rebuilding project on the Gulf Coast requires bringing new energy to confronting the poverty of spirit. Because that’s what was tearing down the city, long before Hurricane Katrina.