09/02/2005 06:49 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Letter After the Hurricane

The heart-wrenching scenes of human suffering witnessed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina are not only the result of the failure of Lake Ponchartrain’s levees, but also the failure of our nation’s anti-poverty efforts. The overwhelming majority of the victims are poor, many of them black, and like the dispossessed everywhere, they are inevitably the most vulnerable, and the least able to help themselves.

Ironically, the front pages of many American newspapers that captured the hurricane’s initial devastation, also reported that same day on the Census Bureau’s most recent study showing that 1.1 million more Americans slipped below the poverty line in 2004, bringing the total number of poor Americans to 37 million. If video of New Orleans and Biloxi sometimes looked like scenes from a developing country, that may be why.

The report also showed income inequality near an all time high, with 50 percent of income going to the top 20% of households. News coverage of the hurricane made such statistics almost redundant. It was impossible to sit in front of a television in the comfort of a dry, well-stocked home and not grieve for the desperate victims, or for the fact that there are two Americas, more different from each other than ever before. No degree of inequity justifies the looting, violence, and lawlessness that made the situation in New Orleans even more horrific. In the increasingly perilous world in which we live, such division is more disturbing than any challenge imposed by even the greatest extremes of weather.

In the days ahead a debate will rage, and appropriately so, about whether the federal government responded quickly and effectively enough in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. But as profound as the failings of the Federal Emergency Management Administration may prove to be, they are but the latest in a long sad history of government neglecting those whose voices are too weak or too distant to influence policies, budgets, and priorities. That is a political failing that gets little debate at all, and responsibility is not limited to the current Administration.

When it comes to standing up for expensive and politically unpopular anti-poverty programs like food stamps, housing subsidies, job training, and investments in education, both political parties have sought the easy way out, bowing to pressure from vocal anti-government interests. For the most part, their constituents have let them. But the rising rates of grinding poverty that plague significant pockets of urban and rural America can no more be ignored than the rising waters of the mighty Mississippi River.

Americans are a good and generous people. The Red Cross raised more than $21 million from individuals and businesses in two days following the hurricane. But good is not the same as wise. Wisdom dictates going beyond charitable emergency relief to support long term investments in policies and programs that help the poorest become self sufficient. Economic security is the best protection from natural disaster. There weren’t many lawyers, doctors, architects, or venture capitalists sleeping on cots at the Superdome.

Nature’s awesome power will often remain beyond our control. But we can control who suffers in the path of nature’s mercy. That is a choice societies make. One couldn’t watch distraught New Orleans mothers, desperate to find water for their dehydrated children, or the elderly cast adrift without medicines or support, without questioning the choices we’ve made so far. When such incongruent suffering in a nation as blessed as ours becomes intolerable, we may begin to focus not only on the availability of emergency supplies, but on the availability of opportunity for all to share in the American dream.