Sunday, September 18, 2005

Hurricane Katrina Put a Face on Poverty in America

I was watching TV this morning and the ongoing horrors associated with the clean up after Hurricane Katrina battered the Coastal Gulf region of the United States. Many of the personal stories are disheartening and it’s very difficult to watch so many Americans struggle in putting their lives back together again. The region is certainly going to need the financial and emotional support of all Americans to rebuild and revitalize the area.

On this particular Sunday morning, a television news reporter was speaking with U.S. Senator Barack Obama from the State of Illinois about ongoing efforts of federal and local government agencies in managing this natural disaster. Obama said the following: “The citizens of the United States are embarrassed by the level of poverty Hurricane Katrina has exposed in a very public way.”

I agree with Senator Obama. He was referring to the dire circumstances of a predominantly poor and African-American minority community that had neither the means to evacuate nor fend for itself after the category five hurricane assaulted the coastal region. To be sure, hurricanes are color-blind and this particular storm impugned its fury on people from all socio-economic classes living in the area. However, the impact of this disaster did not touch all lives equally. The tapestry of pictures and interviews told a compelling story and TV viewers were resigned to digest and come to terms with the naked truth.

A colossal problem created by our present administration in Washington D.C.? Poverty is not a problem created by Democrats or Republicans. It is a problem created over time by all Americans. No U.S government has been successful in waging a war on poverty throughout our history. We have been content to live in a society of "have's" and "have not's." And we have done so little to create opportunities for the inclusion of all Americans.

In 2005, there is no excuse for this kind of systemic poverty in a country as rich, powerful, and creative as the United States. I have little doubt most Americans are indeed embarrassed by what most of us seem willing to look away from as we go about our daily lives. There seems to be a public attitude that poverty belongs to someone else. Or perhaps, that government will take care of the indigent. As we are witnessing firsthand, it’s quite easy in a city as big as the “Big Easy” to hide profound poverty in its inner linings. Hurricane Katrina just exposed in a shocking kind of way what welfare counselors and social workers know to be the truth. In many big cities, there lives an invisible population that grinds out its day-to-day existence on the edge. Katrina rudely put a personal face on poverty in a way that the average American never sees.

I don’t believe most fair-minded Americans are liking what they see. And we can only hope most are smart enough to recognize that a few bucks to the Red Cross or small contributions in the church plate on Sunday are going to correct the core of the problem we have been watching for these last two weeks. Of course, charitable contributions are both generous and necessary. However, they will not improve the quality of lives in the long run.

In my judgment, Katrina has given America a new chance to look at its systemic poverty. This not only includes the economic futures of people of color, but all disenfranchised citizens who are unemployed and underemployed. This includes America’s largest minority population of people with disabilities. Americans with disabilities experience among the highest levels of unemployment in our country and a majority are resigned to living in economic dependency.

Unfortunately, there are no quick fixes to this problem. The eradication of systemic poverty in America is going to take brand new ways of thinking about the education, training, and employment of citizens who are not presently participating in the workforce. No, I am not talking here about revisiting long-term welfare handouts or reinvesting in big government or human service systems. We've been there, done that.
What I am referring to is real public and private investment in economic development that rewards all stakeholders for participating in free enterprise. This not only includes employers but also job seekers with long-term unemployment, poverty, and employability challenges. To illustrate, I recently offered such an idea to increase the job placement and self-support of Social Security disability beneficiaries (
In my view, it is going to take bold and innovative public-private partnerships to encourage employers to take calculated risks and hire people with histories of long-term unemployment and poverty. However, let's be clear here. It is not enough to get just any job. America's workforce strategy must include economic investment in job skills training and career development of both the unemployed and underemployed (the working poor). Without good job skills, the working poor has little chance of improving wage income, employment benefits such as health care, and supporting their families.
What America needs is better public policies that expect and reward employment outcomes for all Americans. We already know a cookie cutter approach to job placement is not effective in creating jobs for many people with disabilities and others with significant job barriers. This is why emerging person-centered strategies such as customized and supported employment are more effective in creating job placement outcomes for challenging-to-employ individuals.
Finally, we need greater public-private investment in job progression strategies so people who are living below national poverty standards have a real opportunity to build job skills, improve their wages and benefits, and contribute to their self-dependency over time. Taking shortcuts, including creation of a quick fix job, will only produce disappointing results in the long run.

In more than one way, Hurricane Katrina was a rude awakening for America. However, the aftermath of this storm has given our country a wonderful opportunity to revisit a long-time national problem--the war on poverty. As a nation, we can ill-afford sending the invisible poor back into these hell holes with a hopeless prognosis for their economic future. This is unAmerican and morally wrong. The time has come to refocus our energies and take action while we have the collective wisdom and undivided attention of all Americans. We cannot let this opportunity for responsible change and momentum slip away from us. To do so, would be a far greater disaster.


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