Floodwaters Lift Poverty Debate Into Political Focus

Times Staff Writer

The vivid images of poor residents, most of them African American, stranded across New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have generated more discussion in the nation’s capital about poverty than any event in years.

It is too soon to say whether this will lead to a new agenda for either party -- or even remain a focus as the floodwaters recede.

But many analysts believe that the stark pictures of families trapped amid the rising waters have made the persistence of poverty tangible to many Americans in a way unmatched by years of government reports. On the day New Orleans flooded, in fact, the Census Bureau released an annual report showing that the number of Americans in poverty rose for the fourth consecutive year.

“One of the things that I hope we will do is look at this as an opportunity ... to shine a bright light on poverty in America and do something about it nationally,” John Edwards, the 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee, said Sunday on CNN.


The two political parties are drawing competing conclusions from Katrina. Edwards and other leading Democrats maintain that the widespread deprivation revealed by the flood demonstrated the need for a renewed government offensive against entrenched poverty -- and showed the inadequacy of the “compassionate conservative” agenda President Bush has offered for the needy.

“Their rhetoric does not match the reality of what they have done,” Edwards said in an interview.

By contrast, some conservative thinkers say the experience underscored the inadequacies of traditional government programs for the poor -- and demonstrated the need for new approaches that would encourage greater personal responsibility.

“You have to look at whether or not the policies have actually helped,” said John H. McWhorter, a senior fellow at the conservative Manhattan Institute. “Clearly there is still a very serious problem with poverty. But you have to help people help themselves.”

Meanwhile, White House officials say Bush has focused on the problems of the poor throughout his presidency with programs such as subsidies for low-income home buyers and income tax cuts for the working poor. “The president has had an aggressive campaign to lift people out of poverty and to empower them,” said Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman.

The point that might inspire the most agreement is that the shocking images from New Orleans -- not only the financial need of those left behind but also the violence and breakdown of order -- may provide an opportunity to focus public attention on a problem that has not commanded the political stage for decades.

“This disaster is the best chance the nation has had since the 1960s to take on urban problems with the whole country watching, and both sides had better give it their best shot,” said Bruce Reed, former chief domestic policy advisor for President Clinton.

In the months ahead, the problems of the poor will compete for attention with the physical needs of rebuilding part of the Gulf Coast, the budget implications of that massive federal effort and the crisis’ effect on energy prices -- as well as with the war in Iraq.

But some analysts believe that Katrina could prove a watershed in the debate over poverty, largely because it provided a window into the life of the poor that was more visceral and intimate than most Americans ever witness.

“Sept. 11 made Americans aware of our national security vulnerability, and there is a good chance that Katrina will raise the public’s consciousness about the weakness of our social safety net,” said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, a nonpartisan group that measures public opinion. “I don’t think there is going to be a call for big new government programs, but there is going to be a refocus from the public on dealing with poverty and the people left behind.”

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), echoing language from Clinton, said the crisis should inspire the two parties to bridge the “false dichotomy” over whether the key to reducing poverty was more government help or greater personal responsibility among the poor. For challenges such as improving schools in poor neighborhoods, he said, both would be required.

“I think a good place to start would be for both Democrats and Republicans to say ... we are willing to experiment and invest on anything that works,” Obama said.

The poverty level today is within a range common over the last 35 years, Census Bureau figures show, but recent trends are moving in the wrong direction. In the last 35 years, the poverty rate has twice peaked at about 15% -- during the economic slowdowns at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidential term and the end of George H.W. Bush’s.

As the economy expanded through Clinton’s two terms, the number of Americans in poverty dropped by nearly 8 million, and the poverty rate fell to just above 11% by 2000. Those were the sharpest reductions since the 1960s.

Since George W. Bush took office, the share and the number of Americans in poverty have increased for four consecutive years. The overall poverty rate remains lower than during most of Clinton’s presidency. But at the same time, 5.4 million more Americans are living below the poverty line today than when Bush took office, and the poverty rate has climbed back to 12.7%.

In all, the Census Bureau says, nearly 37 million Americans now live in poverty, which it describes as an annual income of less than $19,157 for a family of four.

Republicans generally blame the economic slowdown Bush inherited from Clinton and the aftershocks of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks for that disappointing record. Democrats say the numbers show that Bush has not fulfilled his promises, especially from the 2000 campaign, to focus on the poor with a “compassionate conservative” agenda.

Policy analysts in both parties generally agree that the health of the economy is the biggest factor affecting the poor.

In their policies aimed directly at the needy, the two parties offer a mix of convergence and contrast.

Clinton bequeathed the Democrats an agenda centered on demanding and rewarding work. He supported time limits for welfare recipients -- but also championed policies meant to bolster the working poor, such as increasing the minimum wage and expanding the earned-income tax credit.

Most Democratic ideas for tackling poverty now follow those tracks. Edwards -- who stressed poverty with his “two Americas” theme during his vice presidential bid -- has campaigned across the country this year for state ballot initiatives to raise the minimum wage. Now, he is urging a modern equivalent of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration to employ low-income New Orleans residents to rebuild the city.

While supporting welfare reform, Bush has highlighted other initiatives: subsidies to help more low-income families purchase homes, tax cuts for the working poor, education reforms targeting inner-city schools and, above all, efforts to encourage greater cooperation between government and religiously based charities that aim to not only provide aid but also change behavior. At the same time, the president has sought budget reductions in several traditional anti-poverty programs, such as Medicaid, housing vouchers and community development block grants.

Meanwhile, some conservatives say the aftermath of Katrina may set in a motion a giant social policy experiment by dispersing families from poor neighborhoods in New Orleans to new opportunities in distant communities. That may test the theory that poverty persists partly because much of it is concentrated in neighborhoods with few role models or stable families.

“My hope is we will look at that experience and the ones who broke out of poverty by having to move and say that is another avenue out of poverty and learn from it,” said Douglas J. Besharov, a social policy expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute.

For all sides, Obama said, the key to sustaining progress on the issue may be entering the debate with realistic expectations. “It’s really important to have a sense of modesty,” he said. “We’re not going to eliminate poverty tomorrow, but we can certainly improve the prospects of people over the long term.”