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Too little, too late

Katrina blows the lid off America's care crisis

By Judith Stadtman Tucker


"To appraise a society, examine its ability to be self-correcting. When grievous wrongs are done or endemic sufferings exposed, when injustice is discovered or opportunity denied, watch the institutions of government and business and charity. Their response is an index of the nation's health and of a people's strength."

-- David Shipler, The Working Poor, 2004

The media is overflowing with analyses and criticism of the federal government's mind-boggling lack of preparedness and unconscionably slow response to last week's devastation of the Gulf Coast, and there's really not much I can add to what's already been said. There's no need for me to comment on the inevitability of catastrophic natural disasters (global warming or no), or how politically motivated appointments and funding priorities at the Department of Homeland Security weakened the operations of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. And I'm sure readers are already aware of the federal government's blasé approach to the well-documented deterioration of New Orleans' century-old levee system, and the world's shock and disbelief at the sudden exposure of the humanitarian crisis that's simmered for decades beneath the polished surface of an outwardly civilized and egalitarian society. "We don't live like this in America," an exhausted and bewildered flood victim told the New York Times. (1)

But it appears that "this" is precisely the way we live: chest-deep in the foul run-off from our calculated inattention to escalating social problems at home and abroad. It's just that the fallout of our indifference is rarely so brutally visible to the public eye. By now, many Americans are waking up to the troubling reality that race and class often determine not just who lives well and who lives poorly in our society, but who lives and who dies.

While economists, public health experts and policy analysts have issued repeat warnings about the human, moral, and social costs of the staggering degree of income inequality separating the haves from the have-nots in the United States, people in power have carried on business as usual with remarkable impunity. With exception to the pubic outcry over proposed privatization of Social Security, tough-love politicians preaching small government and personal responsibility have encountered little resistance to efforts to systematically shrink the social safety net while pushing legislative and tax reforms to protect the assets of corporations and the monied class.

People who think minimizing human suffering caused by widespread poverty and social injustice is one of the hallmarks of good government are struggling to understand why this ruthless winnowing down of the welfare state has been allowed to continue unchecked. Is it because the progressive movement, and the Democratic party in particular, has failed to craft a persuasive counterargument to the radical right's draconian agenda? Or could it be, as Arlie Russell Hochschild suggests in a recent essay, that even the least well-off Americans prefer to "identify up" with those who are richer, more famous and luckier than they themselves will ever be? Or is it, as author David Shipler reports in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Working Poor, that "after all that's been written, discussed and left unresolved" about the root causes of poverty in the U.S. and its potential remedies, average people of good-will have become inured to the magnitude and urgency of the problem? America's poor, Shipler argues, have become invisible to those with the right resources and social capital to gain membership in mainstream society, and their hardships are easily swept under the rug of politics as usual. And as long as the teeming multitude of America's impoverished and dispossessed remained conveniently out of sight and out of mind, policymakers -- and the voting public -- weren't forced to contend with the possibility that the American Experiment might end in cataclysmic failure.

Of course, all that's changed now.

It may seem insensitive and opportunistic to raise this issue of family policy when the nation is still reeling from the enormity of events and uncertainty about what lies ahead -- for the hundreds of thousands of individuals and families who were damaged and displaced by Hurricane Katrina and its horrendous aftermath and for the rest of us. But while debates about the confounding lack of family policy in the U.S. typically focus on relieving the time squeeze for middle-class parents in dual-earner couples or removing barriers to mothers' career advancement, there's another side to the story.

What France, Sweden, Denmark and other countries with exemplary family and child policies know -- and what the U.S. obstinately refuses to consider -- is that social policies guaranteeing all workers paid maternity and medical leave, a minimum number of paid sick days, access to affordable quality child care, worker- and family-friendly working time protections, and a realistic minimum wage are also highly effective anti-poverty measures. In fact, many nations offering policies to protect maternal employment and benefits for family caregivers do so to reduce the incidence and social costs of women's and children's poverty -- and it works. Throw in universal health care, more and better unemployment coverage for workers employed less than full-time, adequate funding for excellent public education nationwide, and safe, affordable housing for the low-wage workforce and we might start to see the rough outlines of a good-enough society -- a society where the link between caring for dependent family members and economic insecurity is finally severed, and where children of all races and classes have equal opportunities to thrive.

Let me be clear: I'm not proposing that if -- like almost every other affluent nation in the world -- the U.S. had more and better family policy in place today, the thousands of mothers and children forced to take shelter in the New Orleans Superdome might have been spared their nightmarish ordeal. Perhaps if the minimum wage was closer to a living wage, or if "welfare-to-work" programs trained and placed former TANF recipients in jobs that actually paid enough to raise their families out of poverty, or if low-income working parents weren't spending nearly a third of their earnings on child care, more families might have been able to afford private transportation or lodging in safer quarters. (As Illinois Senator Barack Obama comments, "whoever was in charge of planning and preparing for the worst case scenario appeared to assume that every American has the capacity to load up their family in an SUV, fill it up with $100 worth of gasoline, stick some bottled water in the trunk, and use a credit card to check in to a hotel on safe ground.") It's impossible to know if adequate policies to support low-income families could have averted some of the human misery we've witnessed in the aftermath of Katrina -- and irresponsible to guess. In any case, unless better provisions were made for their evacuation, the disabled, the sick and dependent elderly would still have been stranded and at risk.

But there is a common denominator between America's signature resistance to enacting even modestly effective family policies and the failure of leadership that sealed the fate of Katrina's poorest and most vulnerable victims. After three decades of systematic assault on the concept of shared sacrifice to promote the general welfare, our nation is now experiencing a critical shortage of common empathy and political will. As a caring society, the U.S. has hit rock-bottom.

When I speak to groups about the need for more and better family policy in the U.S., people often ask why this country is such an outlier, compared to all of Western Europe, in its lack of comprehensive support for working families -- especially when the social costs of not supporting children and families are so desperately high. There are a number of cultural and economic factors that come into play, but they all lead back to the same point of origin. I suspect our confusion about the appropriate role of government in providing for the common good has less to do with our diversity and love of personal freedom (as many analysts will insist), and more to do with our moral maturity as a nation. After all, in the scope of world history, the United States is rather young and (at least in theory) has a long trajectory of progress ahead. One might compare the U.S. to a willful toddler, but with much more dangerous toys at her disposal and global clout.

Parents of toddlers generally try to teach their children the hard lesson that -- as much as we adore them -- they are not, after all, the center of the universe. We remind them to share and play fair with others -- no hitting or biting. We begin to teach them about the importance of taking responsibility, and that both actions and inaction can have undesirable consequences. But starting at a very young age, we also teach our children to recognize and respect the feelings and needs of other humans and living things, and gradually instruct them in the basics of being caring people.

As anyone who has actually attempted this knows, guiding the rational and moral development of toddlers is very much a touch-and-go affair, with long periods of defiance and regression marked by stunning breakthroughs of enlightenment. The horrifying incompetence of federal officials -- which inevitably compounded the surplus of human suffering left in Katrina's wake -- suggests America still hasn't figured out what it means to be a caring society, or whether or not it wants to be one.

Whatever direction the U.S. decides to take in the next phase of its moral evolution, there is more at stake than the welfare of America's most vulnerable people and families. In her introduction to Unfinished Work: Building Equality and Democracy in an Era of Working Families, Jody Heymann notes that "If the United States is to continue to evolve and succeed as a democracy, it needs to address the essential social tasks of completing work and rearing the next generation while increasing equality of opportunity -- not increasing disparities" (emphasis added). The recent disaster in the Gulf Coast makes it painfully clear that we still have a very long way to go.

No one could wish for an object lesson in social responsibility and the value of caring as harsh and as costly -- both economically and on the scale of human loss -- as the one Katrina swept into our midst. But perhaps as a nation, we've entered a teachable moment. 

mmo : august 2005

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the Mothers Movement Online.

Other Katrina commentaries of note:

Hurricane Pundits Blow Hot Air on Single Mothers
Angela Bonavoglia, Women's eNews, 14 Sept 05
Americans are confronting sweeping images of poverty blown wide open by Hurricane Katrina. Angela Bonavoglia says this should be an opportunity to look at the nation's responsibility to all its people, including low-income single mothers.

The Other Side of the Big Easy
Liza Featherstone, AlterNet, 12 Sept 05
Katrina has exposed decades of benign neglect, racism, and environmental injustice that can't be prettified with crawfish étouffé.

Welcome to the 'Third World,' America
Sarita Sarvate, AlterNet, 12 Sept 05
If there is one useful purpose this tragedy can serve, it would be to raise American consciousness about the 'Third World' that lies within its boundaries.

A Moral Moment
Al Gore, AlterNet, 13 Sept 05
When the corpses of American citizens are floating in toxic floodwaters five days after a hurricane strikes, it is time to hold the leaders of our nation accountable for the failures that have taken place.

No Exit From the Danger Zone
Alison Stein Wellner, AlterNet, 19Sept 05
Disaster evacuation plans throughout the U.S. assume that people own a car. Too bad for the 23 million Americans who don't.

Katrina Shakes Global Faith in U.S.
Pueng Vongs, AlterNet, 15 Sept 05
Journalists around the world are watching images from the hurricane's aftermath -- and are shocked that a country so mighty could have fallen so far.

A 'New' New Deal
William Greider, Common Dreams, 16 Sept 05
A profound political question is suddenly on the table: Must the country continue to give precedence to private financial gain and market determinism over human lives and broad public values? Or shall we now undertake a radical restoration on behalf of society and people?

Exiles From a City and From a Nation
Cornel West, Common Dreams, 11 Sept 05
Originally published in the Observer/UK
It takes something as big as Hurricane Katrina and the misery we saw among the poor black people of New Orleans to get America to focus on race and poverty.

Leave Katrina Relief Efforts to Government
Ted Rall, Common Dreams, 15 Sept 05
Government has been shirking its basic responsibilities since the '80s, when Ronald Reagan sold us his belief that the sick, poor and unlucky should no longer count on "big government" to help them, but should rather live and die at the whim of contributors to private charities. The Katrina disaster, whose total damage estimate has risen from $100 to $125 billion, marks the culmination of Reagan's privatization of despair.

Not 'Refugees,' but Americans
Connie Schultz, Common Dreams, 12 Sept 05
Originally published in the Minneapolis Star Tribune
"Refugee" no longer feels like a word, but a way to distance ourselves emotionally from what we can't quite believe is happening to citizens in our own country. To many, it sounds like an attempt to excuse the inexcusable… Let's not start by calling them refugees. They are Americans, and it's time we take care of our own."

The Inequality President
Rinku Sen, TomPaine.com, 14 Sept 05
"It is obvious now that the devastation caused by Katrina was preventable and that New Orleanians lost out to Bush's other priorities—the tax cut for America's upper ranks as well as the Iraq war and subsequent occupation, costing $400 billion total. These decisions frame the dynamics of Bush's disregard for people of color. He has gutted the public programs that help the poor and people of color maintain a basic standard of living, and done away with the civil rights protections that defend our humanity."

Flushing out the ugly truth
By Joan Walsh, Salon, 2 Sept 05
"The crisis unfolding before us -- dispossession, looting, people shooting at rescue workers, the president's dim response, and now, people dying in front of our eyes outside the Superdome -– rubs our noses in so much that's wrong in our country, it's excruciating to watch. But I'm especially struck by the inability of our existing political discourse to describe, let alone to solve, the intractable social problems that have come together in this flood whose proportions and portents seem almost biblical."

A Flood of Bad Policies
By Molly Ivins, AlterNet, 2 Sept 05
While Katrina's dead have not yet been counted, it's not too soon to hammer home a point: government policies have real consequences in people's lives.

The Katrina Disaster and the Role of Government
Demos, a national, nonpartisan public policy and research organization based in New York, is chronicling the public debate about the role of government in the aftermath of the hurricane. A special weppage includes links to a selection of news articles, op ed pieces, and other materials that document or comment on the role of government in keeping people safe and restoring them to productive and fulfilling lives.

1. "A Delicate Balance Is Undone in a Flash," by Peter Applebome, Christopher Drew, Jere Longman and Andrew Revkin, the New York Times, 09.03.05.
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