Katrina’s Poor Face a Long, Tough Road Back

Once they tap out their FEMA debit cards and abandon their temporary shelters, Gulf Coast residents who were living in poverty before Hurricane Katrina obliterated their homes and livelihoods face a daunting challenge: starting over with even less.

Barbara Bush set off a maelstrom of complaints when she said that evacuees housed in the Houston Astrodome “were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.” Her attitude and that of many other affluent Americans toward the disproportionately poor victims of Katrina reflected a profound naivete about poverty and race in America, critics said.

But whether or not she intended it, Bush’s remark also touched on the groundbreaking notion that Katrina did open a window of opportunity for the displaced poor, and for local, state and federal governments to attack poverty at its roots.

“We have a real chance, we’re at a real fork in the road,” said William Rodgers, a former chief economist for the Department of Labor under President Bill Clinton.

“If we go one way, we can raise everyone’s well-being and also reduce decades-old levels of inequality. If we choose to go the other way, we could do more harm and exacerbate the inequality we’ve been seeing on our TVs,” he said.

Those who waded to safety or got plucked from rooftops know that quick thinking can make all the difference. Katrina presents an opportunity for governments, the private sector and individuals to improve the lot of evacuees, whether they choose to go home or relocate. Yet hasty, unstudied decisions could trigger new problems. Among them: resentment among the poor citizens of host communities who get pushed aside to deal with an influx of even needier souls.

Forty percent of children in Orleans Parish were living in households with incomes below the federal poverty threshold; seven other Gulf Coast counties hit hardest by Katrina had an even higher proportion of children living in poverty.

Many impoverished residents of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast towns did not have family or friends in faraway places to turn to for help, and they now start new lives without much in the way of schooling or job skills.

Poverty scholars worry that a number of communities will decide they are not particularly interested in helping poor Katrina evacuees resettle permanently in their midst, said Rebecca Blank, dean of the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and co-director of the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan.

The post-Katrina policy debate might soon echo the welfare-reform controversy of the 1980s and 1990s, posing questions like “how deserving this group is and how much we owe them,” Blank said.

Talk-radio callers and conservative bloggers initiated this dialogue even before the federal government kicked its Gulf Coast recovery efforts into gear. Within days, the National Review called New Orleans “the city of looters threatening jihad against Red Cross rescue workers.”

People in host communities might put up a great deal of resistance to the potential drain on their local economies if displaced people stick around.

“I’m waiting to see what happens when people start adding up the numbers,” said political economist Paul A. Jargowsky at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“We had lots of people with needs here in Texas before this. What happens when the state has to balance its budget? At some point the federal government will say, ‘This is what we’re paying and no more,’ and states will either have to raise taxes or stop providing support,” he said.

Communities strained by new arrivals, Blank said, are likely to argue for rebuilding low-cost housing in New Orleans or elsewhere on the Gulf Coast and moving people back home. Meanwhile, organizations such as the National Urban League and the NAACP Legal Defense Fund have asked federal lawmakers to make the hiring of displaced minorities a top priority in rebuilding efforts.

One problem already identified by economists and historians is the possibility that returning home will be too costly for poor Gulf Coast families. Jargowsky said he sees parallels between the Katrina displacement, the 19th-century Irish immigration spawned by the potato famine and the 20th-century westward movement of the Okies during the Dust Bowl.

“Immigrants came here with nothing and didn’t go back. When you’re a pioneer like that you’re trying to establish yourself and survive,” he said. “Most of the Okies stayed in California.”

New Orleans may become a whiter, gentrified city if the federal government doesn’t help poor people return.