The aftermath of superstorm Sandy and the land of opportunity
Predictions abound: Will superstorm Sandy help or hurt President Obama look 'presidential'? The bigger question is what Washington can do to help the neediest Americans, when a hurricane blows through – and when it doesn't.
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Over the next few days, we’ll have a chance to judge Mr. Obama’s own FEMA team. But almost nobody – not even, it appears, Mitt Romney – will suggest that we do away with the agency altogether.Skip to next paragraph
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And that brings us back to Ed Koch’s question. Ted Steinberg aptly summarizes it in his book “Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America”: “If Congress was so willing to offer assistance to the victims of natural disaster…why was it so reluctant to offer similar relief to the sufferers of man-mad calamities, people injured by an economic system that deprived them of decent housing and jobs?”
The answer, ironically, lies in the comforting myth that many Americans continue to cling to: Anyone can make it here. Never mind that economic mobility now occurs less commonly in the US than in most other Western democracies, as several recent studies have shown. You can do anything you want, many still insist, if you put your mind to it; and if you fail, well, you’re probably just not trying hard enough.
But lawmakers carve out an exception for natural disasters, which helps reinforce this larger narrative about American success. That’s why we call them “Acts of God,” after all; their victims aren’t at fault. So we offer them a helping hand, however ineptly, and declare the American dream once more open to all.
If Washington really wants to preserve the land of opportunity, lawmakers must consider new ways to help our neediest citizens – and not just after a hurricane. The real issue isn’t what we do when the winds start blowing. It’s what to do when they stop.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of “Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory” (Yale University Press).