Katrina casts light on the other poor
SAN BERNARDINO, CALIF. — Willie Ulibarri knocks on the door of a small, ranch-style house set in the scruffy foothills of sagebrush-covered mountains. He greets Teakka Burton and her two children, one of six families of New Orleans evacuees who are getting fresh starts, thanks to Ulibarri's 50-member church. Ms. Burton tends her 1-year-old while filling out an application to cosmetology school.
"We wanted to help these folks get back on their feet and be self-sustaining after losing everything," says Mr. Ulibarri.
Minutes later, Ulibarri greets other new faces: poor members of his own neighborhood. "We've got to get you into language classes so you will be ready for job training," he tells Janette Flores, an unemployed woman living just doors away.
"Thank you, Reverend," Ms. Flores says. "With all the attention being paid to hurricane victims, we've been wondering when anyone might get around to helping us, too."
The two visits illustrate the cross- currents swirling around the issue of poverty. The devastating Gulf hurricanes whipped up an immediate outpouring of American generosity - some $1.7 billion so far for the storms' victims. They also laid bare the United States' longstanding and growing population (now 37 million people) that subsists below poverty level.
Now, in moving to help the former, Congress finds itself in a budget scramble that is likely to trim the very programs that are crucial to the latter. Thus, what many hoped would become a golden opportunity to address long-term poverty now hangs in the balance, say policy analysts, social historians, and those who study the working poor.
"In many ways, it has taken a natural disaster combined with a social disaster for many Americans to see something in their own country which they didn't already see ... namely widespread, grinding poverty," says Doug Hicks, a board member of the Virginia Poverty Law Center. "Now the question is how much momentum will accompany the public outcry ... and in what form for how long?"
At the local level, the lesson has become clear - as church groups such as Ulibarri's are learning.
"We saw that by looking to take in evacuees, that they needed more than just short-term support but a way to get reestablished in life and regain normalcy," says Ulibarri. "As we did that, we began to realize we need to completely reevaluate ... how we deal with the poverty that is in our own neighborhoods."
The latest statistics are sobering. After much progress in the booming 1990s - including the dropping of 9 million from welfare rolls after welfare reform - poverty has returned in force. Starting in 2001, the share of Americans in poverty has increased each year. In 2004 alone, their ranks grew by 1 million. In all, some 12.7 percent live below the poverty line: defined as $15,067 for a family of three.
President Bush called poor areas of the Gulf Coast the "legacy of segregation" and promised bold action to reduce poverty. But with federal deficits mounting, Mr. Bush has put few ideas on the table so far - and many poverty analysts say the opportunity for a national dialogue is evaporating with astonishing speed.
"We were expecting that in the same way that 9/11 really shook a lot of fundamental attitudes of the American public, that this major event would as well ... but there as yet have been no fundamental shifts in attitudes toward poverty," says Carroll Doherty of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. A nationwide September poll by Pew concludes: "Americans broadly support the relief effort, but there is no evidence that basic attitudes on poverty and the government's role in addressing the issue have been altered by Katrina."
One obstacle: The cost of hurricane cleanup and reconstruction - already at $62.3 billion - is expected to top $200 billion. That price tag, combined with continued military involvement in Iraq, is ballooning federal deficits.
"In this budget environment that has both chambers of Congress looking for budget cuts, poverty programs are typically the most vulnerable," says Jason DeParle, author of "American Dream: Three Women, Ten Kids, and a Nation's Drive to End Welfare." "Poverty programs have less of a constituency and less political protection on Capitol Hill."
Even as poverty ranks grow, House Republicans have proposed cuts of $35 billion to $50 billion in food stamps and Medicaid, the health-insurance program for the poor. There is also talk of cutting back on the Earned Income Tax Credit - a key way to supplement wages of the working poor. Senate Republicans are looking at a $35 billion cut, with some $10 billion coming from Medicaid and Medicare.
The poverty discussion also touches on a litany of related issues, including crime, hunger, illegal drugs, and racial discrimination and segregation. One debating point, at least for those who lobby for a more pronounced government effort, is whether the US should adopt Canadian or European models of healthcare, education, and welfare. Those systems are showing signs of increasing financial strain but are associated with lower poverty rates than in the US.
"We have by world standards a relatively small percentage of poor, but in terms of the developed countries we have a high percentage largely because we don't have a system of family and income support anywhere close to any of the European countries," says Steve Mangum, associate dean of Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business. "This is the debate we should be having."
But political inertia, empathy fatigue, media attention spans, and simple human nature - especially in the current budget environment - will probably prevent it, as they did in the past, many analysts say. "I am disappointed that the larger debate is not happening," says Mr. Doherty.
Still, there are optimists aplenty.
"This is a period in which the whole country is taking the poor of New Orleans into their homes, and they are realizing they are human beings just like them, struggling just like them," says Andy Bales of Union Rescue Mission in Los Angeles. "People will learn that if they assist people in finding their hope and dream that it can happen and that their own attitudes and preconceptions about the poor can change."
That may be the case for Ulibarri's Celebration City Church, which many say is matching its nascent awakening to poverty with long-term commitment that doesn't depend heavily on direct government aid.
"Part of the answer for me was just to have somebody see me, support me, and help me break the cycle of poverty in my own mind," says Robby Kimery, a painter hired by Celebration City Church to paint some of its properties. It also intends to create affordable senior housing, job training, and after-school activities for kids.
"We think the poor need to be retrained in their thinking about themselves," says Ulibarri. "For us it's not a matter of throwing money or time or help as a one-time band-aid, but rather of instilling hope person to person, one by one."
The 1960s' war on poverty, the last time the federal government dramatically boosted spending on the poor in a concerted bid to reduce their ranks, may hold lessons for today about what does and doesn't work. Indeed, programs and policies dating from the Lyndon Johnson administration are being reexamined - by those on both sides of the political aisle - as analysts and the general public consider anew how to break the cycle of poverty.
In those years, an influx of federal dollars created educational opportunities for the disadvantaged such as Head Start for preschoolers and Upward Bound, exposing minorities to college life. Work training and job programs increased, as did healthcare initiatives and supplemental income programs such as the Earned Income Tax Credit. Poverty rates also dropped.
But later in the decade, the nation's interests shifted from domestic programs to the Vietnam War. A succession of Republican presidents (Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan) was interrupted by a single one-term Democrat (Jimmy Carter), whose administration was largely hamstrung by recession. The result: a two-decade tilt toward bolstering national defense, winning the cold war, and fighting crime.
"After the early successes of the Great Society, there was a backlash in much of the country in which it was felt that the war on poverty was spending too much that could be spent on more pressing matters," says David Canton, a historian at Connecticut College in New London. The growing wealth gap of today, say Professor Canton and others, is the result of that shift, combined with another phenomenon, famously tagged as "Reaganomics" but known also as "supply side" or "trickle down" economics. That is the theory that tax cuts fuel the economy and create more jobs, and jobs help the poor.
"Any way you look at it, the evidence is in," says Jared Bernstein, chief economist for the Economic Policy Institute, a liberal think tank in Washington. "There is no way to connect any dots between trickle-down economics and poverty reduction. The arguments and evidence seem to lead heavily in the other direction."
There's been one exception since 1973, some experts say - the late '90s, when the booming dotcom economy was creating low-wage jobs at record rates. Over 4 million people left the poverty rolls in the last half of the decade, and both ends of the political spectrum were quick to explain why in their own terms.
Conservatives do not concede that Reaganomics failed to improve the lot of the poor, and they argue that the US should foster more of the kind of growth that occurred in the 1990s. Cutting taxes on business to encourage more hiring is more effective than government programs, they say, which often just helped the poor become more comfortable in poverty rather than taking them out of it.
"I don't think poverty is the problem; I think people are the problem," says Tom Donlan, editor of Barron's National Business and Financial Weekly. "An economy that is growing rapidly and provides more jobs is the way people get out of poverty."
Since 2001, however, the US has lost 2.7 million manufacturing jobs and seen millions of workers stuck in low-wage positions.
"The challenge in addressing poverty is that of building self-reliance ... how to produce a situation in which a greater number of our citizens can qualify for and hold jobs that pay family-sustaining wage levels," says Steve Mangum, associate dean of Ohio State University's Fisher College of Business. "Part of the answer rests with individuals themselves, part with the structure of labor markets, part with our social and economic policies as a country. Each needs attention. If there were easy, inexpensive answers to the challenges, the challenges would be behind us. They are not."