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Katrina casts light on the other poor

By Daniel B. WoodStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / October 24, 2005


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.

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"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."